One of the first things that Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) who wanted to learn more about their identity had to do in America was learn about Jewish holidays. While I am speaking strictly for myself, this is perhaps the order in which the major Jewish holidays became familiar to many RSJs.
Hanukkah is the holiday I remember learning about first. The menorah, the miracle of the burning oil, the victory over the Greeks all made sense as a holiday. Add to that chocolate coins plus gift giving and the meaning of Hanukkah becomes crystal clear to a child. After that, I think I learned about Passover. Escape from slavery, and freedom, the concepts are relatively simple to understand.
After that I probably got familiar with Rosh Hashana. While the idea of a New Year is straight forward, the confusion came from there already being a New Year on January 1st, which was the biggest holiday in the Soviet Union. So why was another New Year needed? Oh, okay, it’s a New Year based on a different calendar, this, a kid like me could understand. Finally, Yom Kippur. The meaning of the holiday was not simple to grasp. Something about being sealed in a book, something about atonement, everyone who doesn’t go to synagogue goes for some reason on this day……Okay, it’s a day where you ask forgiveness for the bad things you did during the year. It made sense, sort of.
Then there is Sukkot. For whatever reason, for a long time I had no idea what this holiday was about, and what I did know raised more questions than answers. I knew that many observant Jews built little temporary houses on this holiday, the sukkah, but why? Did they eat in there? Did they sleep in there? Did they have to go in even if it was raining? And what’s the business with the plants people carry around, and with the lemon-looking thing? The whole thing made no sense. Even after I got more involved in Jewish communal life, no one really rushed to explain it to me. Add to this that sukkah sounds exactly like a curse word in Russian, and you really have a confusing situation.
So, at some point I decided to investigate the matter myself. I won’t give a winded explanation of Sukkot here, since I am not the person to do it, and this is not the article for that. In one sentence, Sukkot commemorates the Jews’ 40 years of travel from Egypt to Israel and God’s protection during this journey. The sukkah, as I understand it, symbolizes the volatile situation of the Jews at the time, in that while it gives some protection from the elements, it is also unstable and temporary. A reminder of life in the desert.
As I learned more about Sukkot, I realized that the symbolism is relevant and familiar to people like myself. My family, like thousands of other RSJ families, left the U.S.S.R in the 1980s, traveled to Austria, stayed for a few weeks, from there traveled to Italy, stayed there a few months, and then came to the U.S. In the U.S, like many other immigrants we settled in big cities, the vast majority in NYC, and then like I did with my own family less then a month ago, it was off to the suburbs. In my own 40-year journey, I lived in four countries and 11 residences.
As most refugees know, material possessions are temporary. Leaving the U.S.S.R in the 1980s, most RSJs could take only few possessions with them, and nothing of value. We couldn’t take money, couldn’t take jewelry beyond what was on us, couldn’t even take our stamp collections. Learning about Sukkot brings back those memories. It’s a reminder that all our stuff, even the houses and even the places we live in are most often temporary stops.
So, what is not temporary? I think Sukkot requires contemplation on this topic. Ideas are not temporary even if our opinion about them changes, neither is history, nor is our heritage. These stay the same. Our parents will always be our parents, and our children will always be our children, even if physically none of us will be here perpetually. I think on Sukkot we learn to weaken our attachments to things that are insignificant and strengthen our bonds to things we hope will last forever.