October 15, 2008
Sukkot in the kishkes
For almost two decades, he has been wandering the streets of Los Angeles looking for food and shelter.
His adult life has been one long transient experience.
So when a holiday like Sukkot comes along, and he enters a sukkah, it's not a big leap for him to feel the message of the holiday and the transient life of our ancestors.
It's his life.
For most of us, however, connecting with the message of our Jewish holidays doesn't come that naturally. At the Passover seder, for example, we are supposed to feel the bondage of the ancient Jews and their arduous journey to freedom. But who are we kidding? The noisy company of family and friends -- not to mention the four glasses of wine -- make it more likely that we'll be caught up with our own crazy journeys than feel the pain of our ancestors.
On Sukkot, we build frail huts next to our sturdy homes to remind us what it was like to be homeless in the desert. But again, how many among us use the sukkah to feel the insecurity of transience and homelessness?
Try as we might, the connection with our holidays and our ancient stories happens more inside our heads than inside our kishkes.
This is why I think that this year, with the global financial meltdown coinciding with the ritual of being inside a wobbly hut, we might see the kishkes make a comeback.
When we enter our frail sukkahs this year, we will be more likely to feel in our kishkes the impermanence of our material possessions -- spooked as we are by an economic crisis so severe and uncertain that David Brooks of The New York Times wrote: "....Even the professionals have no confidence ... we're dealing with uncertainty on stilts while the wolf breathes down our neck."
After seven years of obsessing over security in the context of terrorism, we've all been blindsided by a more pervasive form of terror: sudden financial insecurity.
And the source of this crisis? According to the experts, it's the bursting of the housing bubble. In other words, the bursting of our confidence in the value of our homes.
Imagine that. As we sit in our fragile sukkahs, the invisible hand of capitalism has come to remind us of a key message of Sukkot: That all homes are fragile. This is a Sukkot for the kishkes, if not the shpilkes.
One person I know who has never had difficulty feeling the message of Sukkot is Steve Maloney.
Ever since I moved to Pico-Robertson two years ago, I've seen Maloney hanging around the neighborhood. On most mornings, he'll take the 720, 212 and 7 buses from downtown Los Angeles and arrive in the area at around 6:30 a.m. From there, he will do his morning rounds in the neighborhood shuls and raise just enough in donations to pay for a tiny room in a rundown motel on skid row.
Maloney didn't always have it this good. For years, he slept on the street near Schwartz's Bakery on Fairfax Avenue. Sleeping on cold cement for so long damaged his legs, which he has tried to heal through tai chi and acupuncture. A few years ago, to boost his donations so that he could afford a room with a bed, he put on a pair of tzitzit and a kippah. He says that having a Jewish mother who married an Irishman named Maloney wasn't good for business -- so he also changed his name to Lenny Mills.
I was introduced to Mills by what he calls his "two best friends in the Jewish community" (Rabbi Schlomo Schwartz and his son, Rabbi Mendel of the Chai Center). Over coffee one morning next to the newsstand on Robertson Boulevard, Lenny, a heavyset guy with a cherubic face who's 54 but looks 44, told me his life story.
Born in St. Louis, he grew up in Miami, became a political activist at a young age, left law school after a year to care for his mother who had cancer, eventually went back to law school but got cut out of mother's will, quit law school under emotional stress, married his high-school sweetheart but divorced after 18 months, moved to California with little money in early 1980s to look for a better life, became a left-wing activist in Berkeley, worked in boiler rooms and got ripped off on a business deal, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s but could never find steady work and has been living off his wits ever since.
After several hours of schmoozing with Lenny, the two things that struck me about him were his absence of bitterness and the quality of his conversation. In fact, the subject of his homeless journey wasn't that interesting to him. He preferred to talk about the state of left-wing activism (not good), a new article he'd read in The Nation magazine (really good), his new diet (no more Danishes) and, of special interest to him, what he calls "The Seven Rules of Telemarketing," which he wrote and would like to publish.
A few weeks after our encounter, as I was reading the dark news on Wall Street, something else struck me about Lenny: He might be among the few people in America who won't be affected by the financial meltdown.
His financial meltdown happened a long time ago.
Since then, he has lived a life that wouldn't be foreign to our biblical ancestors: wandering his world, looking for food and shelter and a little sanity. For Lenny, it's as if the experience and message of Sukkot has been imbedded in him for 20 years.
What I found remarkable, though, is that after 20 years of material insecurity, what Lenny craves the most is not a sturdier sukkah to live in, but the simple and lasting joy he feels from a human encounter.
Considering that the deeper message of Sukkot is the affirmation of life in the full knowledge of its uncertainty, and that we call this time "z'man simchatenu," "the season of our joy," it's easy to see why Lenny Mills would feel Sukkot in his kishkes.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.