September 23, 1999
On Huts and Hospitality
"You shall live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 23:42-43).
It's not enough commemoration that for eight days of Pesach we eat matzo, which grows exponentially more afflictive every year. No, six months later, to celebrate Sukkot, God commands us to dwell in flimsy, temporary huts that shake in the wind and sport leaky roofs.
Never mind that while we Jews move into sukkahs, with their often nippy alfresco ambience, most other people, cognizant of the shorter days and cooler temperatures, are putting up storm windows and firing up their furnaces.
Of course, that's precisely the point, to re-create and re-experience the fragile and unsubstantial structures that housed the Israelites for 40 years as they wandered in the wilderness. We reconnect to our peripatetic and uncertain beginnings and to our historical homelessness, once again putting our faith in God's protective powers.
But the frailness eludes my children. "Sometimes I'd rather live in a sukkah than a house," says my son Danny, 8. "A sukkah is holy, and God watches over holy places."
"Having a sukkah makes me feel like I'm really celebrating the holiday," says Gabe, 12.
Until last year, however, we had to rely on the kindness of friends to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
But thanks primarily to Gabe, who lobbied long and hard for a sukkah of our own, we are the proud proprietors of a 10-foot-by-10-foot wood lattice-work tabernacle that fulfills our basic requirements: easy-to-assemble, no tools needed.
It also fulfills Judaism's requirement of three walls at least 7 handbreadths long, 10 handbreadths wide and 10 handbreadths high. That translates to a minimum size of 17.5-inches-by-25-inches-by-25-inches, assuming the width of your four fingers is closer to 2.5 inches than 4 inches, but barely accommodating a family of small vertical weasels.
The other requirement is that the roof be covered with s'chach, a natural material in its natural state, such as bamboo or palm leaves, that cannot be eaten. The covering must provide more shade than sunlight but allow one to see the stars at night. Of course, successfully viewing the stars through the clouds and smog of the Los Angeles Basin constitutes an even greater miracle than liberation from Egypt.
We are instructed not only to build, decorate and dwell in our sukkah, with "dwelling" roughly and most commonly translated as "eating," but also to welcome in ushpizin, Aramaic for guests, who traditionally include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
This year, in addition to these celestial celebrities from the Bible, we have a special guest from the land of the Bible, from a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He is Ya'ir Cohen, 15, an enthusiastic participant in an exchange program, now in its second year, between Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple and Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, that is part of a broader Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership 2000.
Ya'ir, along with 18 other Israeli students, is enjoying an American Jewish experience that is academic, cultural, entertaining and religious, as he observes Reform and Conservative Judaism firsthand. He is living with us for the months of September, October and November, from the High Holidays through Thanksgiving.
The 38 American and Israeli 10th-grade students in the exchange program, speaking to each other in a comfortable mix of Hebrew and English, are all cosmopolitan, cyber-savvy, curious and indefatigable. They study, sightsee and prowl malls together, sharing secrets, slang and CDs. They play football and baseball and, this week, build sukkahs and bridges of friendship.
"Ya'ir's cool," my son Jeremy, 10, says proudly, and not only because Ya'ir plays basketball with him and helps with his Hebrew homework.
Already, after only a few weeks, I can see that my son Zack's life will be forever expanded and enriched -- with a life-long attachment to Israel and his new Israeli friends.
In the spring, Zack will live with Ya'ir and his family, attending Tichon Chadash High School, touring Israel and celebrating Pesach, Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha'atzmaut as a "sabra."
The Bible tells us that Sukkot, even more than the other pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, is the season to rejoice. We rejoice that we have completed the difficult and introspective work of the High Holidays. We rejoice that my husband, Larry, and his crew of five boys succeeded in assembling the sukkah -- perhaps not hastily, like the Israelites' huts, but certainly challengingly and congenially.
And we rejoice that, although the sukkah is intentionally flimsy and temporary, our love of family, Judaism and our new Israeli "sibling" is solid and enduring.
Sukkot is indeed the season to rejoice.