The Sukkah Paradox

Those of us who celebrate Sukkot in a real sukkah understand the paradox of enjoying a feeling of absolute security in a flimsy hut that is utterly vulnerable. Security is something other than safety. Security is an emotional sensibility. Safety is objective.

A sukkah is not a ‘safe’ place. Wind, rain, raccoons, human predators can easily destroy a sukkah. Of course I am not talking about the sort of sukkah that exists behind stone walls in plush parts of Jerusalem, to which only A-list Anglo invitees can gain admission after passing inspection via closed circuit TV, and where plainclothes security keep an eye out for anyone who might filch a Tiffany silver fork for a souvenir. Nor am I referring to wealthy American sukkot which are located, mirabile dictu, in the family’s year ‘round formal dining room, one that features a sliding ceiling in which a bamboo mat is embedded as sort of perma-schach. Both are technically kosher l’mehadrin. But they do not offer even a simulacrum of a genuine sukkah experience.

No, the sukkah I am referring to is best exemplified by one I experienced in 1979 where the powerful sense of security was in inverse proportion to the absolute absence of safety.

I was on a mission in the USSR in search of Jews who had been sent invitational visas to Israel – a requirement before one could apply for a Soviet exit visa ­– and who had not been heard from subsequently. I arrived in Moscow before Yom Kippur with an itinerary that included Czernowitz, Odessa, Kherson, Kishinev and Moscow.

The party I had to track down in Kishinev turned out to be a genuine refusenik, a teacher of Hebrew and a fearless Zionist. Our first meeting took place just before Sukkot and he invited me to join him and some others in a sukkah they had built behind a residential building.

The temperature was frigid, with a dusting of snow on the ground. The building behind which the sukkah was located was a scarred, dilapidated apartment house on a grim, barely illuminated street. The sukkah itself was a jury-rigged agglomeration of mismatched, cast-off doors. The decorations were minimal and home made. The illumination came from a feeble 40 watt bulb. Yet, slowly but surely people started showing up – arriving furtively in ones and twos, dressed for the Russian winter, knowing the risk they were taking, aware that a KGB agent could be anywhere, even among themselves.

And yet they came, and came, and crammed this sukkah to its limits. And despite the danger, and despite the inclement weather, and despite the meager food and drinks the atmosphere was electric. The sense of security – profound, meaningful, Jewishly-connective security – was palpable as these young Jews sang Zionist songs that had long been forgotten in Israel. Never did the tired cliché “Hinei mah tov uma-naim shevet ahim gam yahad” have such meaning. It was like a drug. One did not feel the cold, or give a second thought to the Soviet predators lurking wherever. This was Sukkot.

That priceless experience, on a vastly more modest scale, is what most of us feel on Sukkot. For one week we abandon our creature comforts; replace our paintings and display pieces with colorful kitsch; abandon our comfortable dining room furniture for plastic folding chairs and gimpy tables; break bread with people we rarely see, even perfect strangers, and would not even think of preventing a Jew in need from joining us for something to eat.

This annual vacation from the presumed safety of our homes is a reminder that our normative notions of safety and security are meaningless. That we do not own our possessions. Rather, it is our possessions that own us. Our homes need safes, multiple locks and burglar alarms – and even these are hardly foolproof. By contrast, our sukkah needs none of these, yet we feel liberated and secure in a way we never experience at home.

Among very Orthodox Jews in the diaspora there are two dominant business tracks that are especially popular as neither requires any formal education or degree of literacy in order to become successful. One is diamonds. The other is real estate. Each of these represents a very opposite mindset.

The diamond dealer does to feel secure in the Diaspora where he chooses to live. But at least – or so he thinks – he can always escape with his fortune sewn into his pants pocket. Diamonds are small and extremely portable. Should push come to shove, he can make his escape with his fortune intact. Or so he believes.

The real estate owner feels very safe. Nothing beats real estate as a sure investment. It cannot be moved. It cannot be destroyed. It invariably increases in value over time. One can deduct a technical depreciation from taxes even as the structures escalate in value. This is safety. This is permanence. Or so he believes.

In the late 19th Century there was a very popular Hungarian satirical magazine – Borsszem Jankó – that was, of course, published, written and edited by Budapest Jews. At that time Andrassi Utca, the Fifth Avenue/Champs Elysees of Budapest was being developed. Most, if not all, of the real estate moguls engaged in this enterprise where Jewish, many of them quite Orthodox. The cover of one issue of Borsszem Janko featured the back of a well-fed, caftan-clad Jew with his arms widespread, overlooking the still-developing boulevard as he declared (in Hungarian) “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob”

How prescient was that. Barely a half century later all that real estate was absolutely worthless, and provided no safety for any Jew except for a minuscule handful that could bribe their way onto the Kastner train. And the same real estate story was true for Warsaw and Lodz, for Vienna and Berlin, for Prague and Bratislava. The buildings may have remained standing, but the Jewish landlords went up the chimneys of Auschwitz. Recent events in the Unites States, not to mention Germany, England and France should be a wakeup call.

Sukkot is the time to reflect on this, a time to come to grips with historic imperative, to do what it takes not to be doomed to relive our history by forgetting our past. If we want security, assuming we are not smart enough to make Israel our home, we can find it only in the frail structure of a sukkah that by its very nature enhances and cements our connectivity to others. Safety will never be anything other than a temporary lull. And owning a thousand rental apartments, or a million feet of office space offers no safety at all.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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