Ushpizin in the Time of Corona

When my husband and I sat down — just the two of us — at our Passover Seder half a year ago, there is no way we imagined we would be sitting alone in our sukkah. At the time, I thought, ‘okay, it’s just one chag, one holiday, which we will gladly erase from our memories.’ I lent my children dishes and pots and wine glasses and Seder plates and everyone made the festive meal on their own. ‘Let’s get on with it; this is what we need to do this year.’ But here we are again — everyone is building their own sukkah and I am sharing recipes with my daughters (what, Sukkot without Gypsy Soup?) that have become our annual tradition.  Putting up decorations this year has been a lonely endeavor.

Like Passover, this Sukkot will be like none we have experienced before. We all feel angry and sad and fearful and in so many ways, despairing of the future.

Right after Yom Kippur, we put up temporary structures or booths to remind us of the huts the Israelites dwelled in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after escaping the bonds of slavery in Egypt.  We hold our meals in our temporary shelters; some even sleep in them.  It has always been my favorite holiday, putting up my feet and just sitting, reading, relaxing in our sukkah and come evening, star-gazing through the branches that serve as our rooftop. But in this Corona-year, our temporary hut will remind me of the precariousness of  our existence, of how very vulnerable and exposed we are.  Perhaps, true to the original intent of the holiday (the Festival of Ingathering — how ironic!), this year I shall be focusing on what is genuinely important to me and what plans and dreams I can discard, chuck, as ‘non-essential,’ as immaterial, and even as meaningless.

There is a tradition on Sukkot called the Ushpizin. Aramaic for guests, traditionally we invite biblical personalities (one per night) to join us in our sukkah.  And in our home, well, sukkah, alongside Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, we also invite the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, as well as Miriam, Deborah and Esther.  It is a tradition with Kabbalistic roots and is attributed to Issac Luria, the 16th-century mystic of Safed.  It is also a reminder of the importance of hakhnasat orekhim, hospitality to guests, which goes back to Abraham, who waited outside his tent to welcome and feed tired and dusty travelers.

But this year, we’ll be adding other ushpizin, other honored guests.  We shall be adding people who have graced our sukkah over the years and whose presence we shall sorely miss.  We’ll invite my late parents, who traveled every year from New York and whose arrival became synonymous with the festival.  My father read the Ushpizin, struggling at times with the Aramaic, but determined to persevere.  And as I look up at the paper chains hanging from our temporary roof, I’ll be thinking of my mother, who sat with my children creating these decorations.  And when my kids grew up and her dementia strained her ability to concentrate, she still persevered as well.  My parents will be our first ushpizin in our sukkah.

My mother-in-law, my children’s Bobie will, of course be invited.  Her laughter graced our sukkah as well as her lively conversation and Yiddish sayings and songs.  So many songs. So many stories.  ‘Your place is reserved for you next to Josh.’

And then we’ll invite our friends, Debbie and Asher who have been coming to our sukkah for as long as I can recall, arriving with a huge platter of fruit–piled high with pineapple and persimmons and passionfruit, and home made jams, and of course, Asher’s homemade Limoncello made from their home-grown lemons.  And we’ll invite Debbie’s father, Brian, who passed away just a few short weeks ago.  We’ll feel his presence even more poignantly this year, saddened by his loss. Avigail and Elinor–you too will be among our ushpizin. And if you couldn’t make it every year, you asked (entreated, really) that I pack up doggie bags of sweep potato casserole to send home to you with your parents. This year that orange pecan-covered pie will remain a memory and possibly a harbinger for better times.

And finally, and yes, most importantly, we shall invite our children.  Rikki and Yigal will be among our ushpizin along with our granddaughter, Ori, whom we were so hoping would spend her first Sukkot with us.  Yes, it is simply not fair.  Not fair at all. Shlomo and May; Harel and Ann, you too will be among our honored guests–and who knows, perhaps by then, the twins will be born.  And while you would not have made the trip this year from Florida, we shall feel your presence in your absence.  And maybe next year, Harel and Ann will be able to contribute to our sukkah decorations that I have been collecting since our kids were in kindergarten. And on our ushpizin list are, of course, Daniella and Artyom, even if this year I have no reason to make lemon chicken.  And finally, our ushpizin will include Michal and Sari, who helped build our sukkah, and of course, Shahar.  I keep imagining having my little Roo on my lap and entertaining us with her non-stop chatter.  Such was not meant to be this year.

But in honor of all our ushpizin, our table will be laden with fine white and red wines, as well as port. And we’ll have Gypsy Soup as we do every year, and brisket and sweet potatoes and rice and mushrooms, and perhaps even apple crumble. And we’ll be hoping, praying, that people start acting responsibly; that our government begins to act like a government; and that this horrendous plague disappears and that many good, joyous and less-troubled times are in front of us–that we can return to a world that will no longer seem alien and distant.  And as we sit in our empty sukkah among our invited ushpizin, imagining each and every one at our table, I can’t promise I won’t have tears in my eyes, but I’ll also be reminded of what is most important and valuable to us.

About the Author
Born and bred on the upper West Side of Manhattan, (the then hub of modern Jewish Orthodoxy), I made Israel my home 38 years ago. Graduate of CCNY (BA) and Harvard University (MA) in English and American Literature, I am a lapsed freelance writer and currently unemployed tour guide/educator waiting oh so very patiently for visitors to return.
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