Jews ascribe a lot of value to meritocracy and competence, sometimes, obsessively. It might be for that reason that I so look forward to Sukkot. It gives me a chance to revel in my incompetence.
I built my first sukkah when our three children were young. It would not have happened without the help of a friend named Kevin, whose three children were about the same age as ours and who was a fellow parent at our local Jewish day school. We agreed to do build two identical sukkot, with each of us helping the other, channeling a bit of Amish ethic. Kevin was clearly the brains of the operation. He was both architect and engineer. I offered a bit of sweat equity but I emerged with a lovely, sturdy, if heavy Sukkah which served our family for well over 20 years.
When we became empty nesters, I knew that I needed to move to a lighter sukkah. I no longer had my kids to help me move the large, 4×8 wood panels with lattice from my garage to the backyard. I was thrilled to “gift” our sukkah to a single mom who was a member of our synagogue and her teenaged daughter, where it got a second life. When I helped Cheryl and Eliana build that sukkah in their backyard, I felt like a million bucks. Me, who finds a trip to the hardware store very intimidating, giving direction on the construction. Who would have guessed!
Our new, lightweight sukkah, came in a kit. It still requires a few people to assemble but it is far easier than my original one. But I did not buy the bamboo roof add on, assuming that I could rig something up on my own. On the front end, I saved $65. I have now spent hundreds of dollars and untold hours over several years to figure out a good way to hold the schach on the sukkah roof. I am too proud to now buy the $65 bamboo kit. This week I came up with my third design in five years, weaving twine between the roof poles. I thought it was a brilliant solution until I discovered how quickly 300’ of twine can get knotted. So, I spent several hours with my daughter, Jenny, unknotting twine, again and again, until we finished our twine weave.
It never fails. Each year that I assemble my sukkah, I am reminded of one of Mordecai Kaplan’s lesser-known books called The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. In it, Kaplan has a chapter on each Jewish festival, and he brilliantly builds a case for each holiday without centering God’s supernatural powers, which he did not believe in. He titles the chapter on Sukkot, “God as the Power that Makes for Cooperation”. Indeed, it is impossible to build a sukkah by yourself, as I have learned the hard way over many years.
I see Kaplan’s insight manifested when I join together with other members of our congregation who come together to build our congregation’s sukkah. When I was growing up at our Conservative synagogue on Long Island, I’d join my Dad to help build the congregational sukkah. It was sponsored by the synagogue’s Men’s Club and it was, definitely, a male-only affair. When we founded Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD in the late 1980’s, we intentionally avoided creating a Sisterhood and Men’s Club. The community, since its founding, has had a strong volunteer ethos including weekly, volunteer-led shabbat lunches, with each member being required to prepare and serve several onegs a year, often with 100-150 people in attendance. Sure enough, each year, women, men, teens and children turn out to build our communal sukkah. Is it heretical for the founding rabbi of a congregation to admit that he enjoys building the sukkah more than Sukkot services?
We live in a society that has automated almost everything. The explosion of on-line shopping has even toppled one of the iconic symbols of American society, the shopping mall. Similar to the argument made by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone that the decline of bowling leagues is a metaphor for the breakdown of America’s social fabric, everywhere we look we see reasons why we have become such a polarized society. There are fewer and fewer places where we come together, meet our neighbors and learn how to live cooperatively. America’s pluralistic democracy was built on the strength of the “public square”, where people from different ethnic, religious, political backgrounds could come together, see each other as human beings and, together, work to advance the common good. That public square has all but vanished in American and we are much poorer for it.
Increasingly, I like to describe Judaism as radically counter-cultural. My parent’s generation, many of whom were immigrants to this country, were eager to talk about how Judaism and Americanism were in harmony. It suited their need to fit in and feel like “real” Americans. My generation, and certainly that of my children, no longer has to prove that we belong in America. We are, however, challenged to make the case that Judaism has a place in our lives.
The case is simple. No society can long endure if it cannot find ways to bring people together to do something constructive for the common good. Judaism starts with community. It cannot be done alone. Just try to build a sukkah, and you will see why.