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One man’s sukkah is another man’s shack

Poverty exists in both Jewish souls and Rio's slums

by Jacob Neusner

September 27, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Let me tell you about my Brazilian song. I heard many songs in Brazil, surely the most musical of all countries. The power of dance and music shapes few worlds so forcefully as Brazil's.

I heard a song for Sukkot in Brazil. It is a song of the shacks in the slums -- that is to say, the (Jewish) sukkot of the (Brazilian) favelas and it asks: Who is rich, and who is poor, and where is the sky after all?

Vast slums perch precariously in the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro, each made up of thousands of sukkot -- flimsy shacks in which people live. Upward of 3 million, I was told.

In the valleys below live middle class and rich people, where (just like in Johannesburg, South Africa) modest families employ only two or three servants (at $40 a month); rich ones, many more. The impoverished people descend their hilltop fortresses, work if they can, steal if they have to (having left my arm out the window, my watch with my arm attached was nearly ripped off as I sat in a traffic jam on a busy highway). Then they scramble up to the favela and return, each family to its sukkah.

The favelas with their sukkah shacks are ungovernable. The government cannot deliver services to them; the police cannot reach into them. So what do the officials do? To reach the people, they organize what they call "samba schools," which teach not only the national dance of the country but also music and instruments.

And the people come. They will not come for food, but they will come for music. And through dance and music the state can reach and try to serve the vast population that lives in the clouds, beyond all earthly grasp.

Now what do these shacks in the clouds, filled with starving people ready always for a song and a dance, have to do with the shacks we call sukkot and with our celebration of our festival of rejoicing?

My wife, the artist, is the one who came up with the description "sukkah," and it struck home. For the favelas -- as her inner eye perceived them -- look like shacks, that is to say, sukkot. Yet there people do not live in these temporary shelters as an act of sanctification in the way that we do at this season of the full moon of Tishri because we are commanded to do so; they live in them because they have to.

And that set me to thinking.

On Sukkot, we are commanded to be poor, to re-enter the world in which vast populations on this planet live because of a different commandment, one of necessity, in sight of the stars and without a roof. For us it is cold and refreshing; for them, it is always cold.

For us, it is an act of consecration to re-enter the world of the flimsy shack, without water, without heat, with only God to sustain us. For them, it is a world of bitter necessity. But in Rio, they can sing and dance: Despite their hardships, their souls still respond to music and artful gesture. Give me shoes, and they will wear out, but give me a song, and I will always have it to warm my heart.

Sukkot gives us that taste of poverty that reminds us of the here and the now, not only of long ago or of distant days ahead. It is good for us Jews, most of us living in comfort, to be made to remember poverty, in which most of our grandparents suffered, to be made to experience need. But not need alone -- also the power of song and dance, for at the end of Sukkot, on Simhat Torah, our rite has us dance with the Torah.

Sukkot turns us into street people. On Sukkot, we leave our homes and take up residence, if only for meals, in the Jewish favela -- the neighborhood made up of sukkot. We live in shacks for a week. In our minds eye, so the Torah teaches, these are heavenly dwellings. With us in the sukkah, after all, are the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. There we sing for them, with them.

To live in a circumstance of poverty and to sing, that is Sukkot, the Jewish reminder that most people in most places do not have roofs but see the stars by night because they have to. Sukkot reminds us, in our wealth, that we have souls, and that our souls sustain us.

That is why, when I raised my eyes upward, riding along the gloriously beautiful streets of Rio and looking at the mountains on high, I thought of Sukkot. That and one more thing.

I learned from the great rabbi, Rabbino Henry I. Sobel of the Congregacio Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, Brazil, what really counts in thinking about the Jewish world.

At a dinner he and I attended for Israeli Minister of Education and Culture Yitzhak Navon in Sao Paulo, we sat with some impatience through a long discussion about the Jewish future in Brazil, the United States, Argentina and, of course, the State of Israel.

Navon, a person of substance and intellect, cataloged all the reasons American Jewry is going to fade away, and, all the more so, Brazilian and the rest of the Latin American Jewries, whether small, as in Bogota, Colombia, or Lima, Peru, or great and thriving, as in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Rio, and Sao Paulo. Intermarriage, low levels of Jewish literacy, declining standards of ritual observance -- indicators of change transformed into harbingers of doom.

Then Sobel remarked, "Mr. Navon, people focus on the future. But what concerns me is the present."

He proceeded to explain: "Everyone is always talking about what is going to happen. But I am worried about today. If there is no today, then what difference does tomorrow make?"

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