You make your way into this little hut, and you say a blessing. There is art from your children on the vinyl walls, as well as a picture of the kabbalist Rav Kadoori. Over a Persian rug is a 2-by-8-foot table with 10 folding chairs, and on a beige tablecloth sits two covered challahs, a jar of honey, a Kiddush cup, and a Chumash. In the corner there is a wooden stand with an oriental lamp, and hanging from the thatched roof are fake fruit and other decorations that your kids made.
You have entered one of the great rituals of Jewish life: The sukkah. It may also be the least comfortable.
I have eaten in sukkots in Crown Heights where rain fell on my soup. I've slept in sukkot and my lower back was mad at me for a week. The sitting can be tight, there is rarely enough space to move around, and if you're in my hometown of Montreal, you better bring your scarf and gloves.
So what is it about this odd ritual that has such a hold on the people who experience it?
The first, most obvious thing is that it's really a lot of fun. This is not a very noble thing to say about a holy ritual, but it's true. You get to feel like a kid again, like when you used to assemble play kits, or get silly with your siblings under a makeshift tent in the living room.
Once you enter the sukkah, you feel blessed. Don't ask me to explain this. It's just a vibe. A glow. An energy field -- you walk into a sukkah and you're happy to be alive.
The coffee tastes better. The kugel and the spicy Moroccan fish are incredible. You sing like Bocelli. Your kids don't get on your nerves as much. Even your shmoozing is happier; you're more likely to bring up the new Cirque du Soleil Beatles show than the enraging U.N. representative they had on "The O'Reilly Factor."
Am I exaggerating? Of course, I am. (I'm Sephardic). But a sukkah will do that to you. It makes your heart overflow; you feel more generous, more grateful. Maybe that's because the sukkah itself overflows. A rabbi once said that the sukkah is "the only mitzvah that you can walk into with your muddy boots." It envelops all of you. Other mitzvahs connect to one part of the body -- you eat matzah with the mouth, you put on tefilin with the hands, you read Torah with the eyes -- but the sukkah wants every part of you!
The sukkah loves your beautiful voice and wonderful humor, but it also embraces your warts and wrinkles and "muddy boots." It understands human nature: You can't separate the good from the bad. This little hut does not discriminate. In fact, the sukkah might be the most egalitarian, unifying mitzvah of all. The origin of this holiday is agricultural -- a way of thanking God for the blessings of the land. Every "species" of the land that we commemorate -- the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the willow and the myrtle -- represent, according to our Midrash, a different part of the Jewish people. Our little sukkah embraces them all.
Which makes you wonder: If something is so much fun and so magical, so overflowing with unconditional love and embracing of every part of every Jew, why are there not more Jews putting up their own sukkah? I can't speak for all Jews, but in my new neighborhood, they embrace the sukkah like a Chassid embraces another l'chaim.
Pico-Robertson is where the sukkah rocks. You can feel it in the air. From the frantic rush to purchase sukkah kits at the local mitzvah store, to the last-minute scramble to get schach (palm leaves to cover the sukkah), to kids everywhere bringing home sukkah decorations from school, to seeing so many sukkot being put up on the front lawns, you are reminded that in this part of the world, you simply do not hide your Judaism.
And in a few days, all the sukkot of the Hood will have sprouted. If you want to see how cool this looks, you should really rent a helicopter.
But for now, just use your imagination and picture , as you fly above, hundreds and hundreds of cozy little huts speckling the landscape. Inside each of these little huts there will be thousands of songs that will be sung, thousands of blessings and l'chaims that will be made, and thousands of stories that will be told.
After you land, feel free to pop into one of these little huts -- and don't forget your muddy boots.