There’s a certain bittersweetness to the festival of Sukkot. On the one hand, it’s z’man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing: In ancient Israel, it marked the end of the harvest season, the time when the storehouses were full of sustenance for the coming agricultural year, the time of thanksgiving. We celebrate that today with wonderful meals for friends and family in our own sukkahs — a time of warmth, conviviality, plenty.
On the other hand, the end of Sukkot is (in Israel as well as right here in Southern California) also the end of the dry season. For our ancestors, as they made their way back from the Temple in Jerusalem to their villages and farms, there must have been an undercurrent of anxiety as well, an anxiety no different from the one that haunts farmers today in the drought-stricken regions of this country. Would enough rain fall in the coming winter, so that there would be a harvest next year as well?
Thinking about the ambivalence as we approach the final days of Sukkot reminded me of a conversation I had in August.
I was one of 17 American rabbis from across the denominations to travel with an American Jewish World Service (AJWS) delegation to a very, very poor part of Ghana — Sankor, a village on the coast that was rife with child trafficking; for as little as $50, poverty-stricken parents have sold their children to work as slaves on fishing boats on Lake Volta.
But Sankor is also the site of Challenging Heights (CH). A long-term recipient of AJWS’ support, CH was created by a former child slave, James Kofi Annan, to save other children from his fate. The organization rescues trafficked children, rehabilitates them in a special center, counsels and works with the parents, and helps to set the family on their economic feet through microloans and support. Most of all, CH is focused on the children’s education, so that they, and other poor children from Sankor, will have the tools to overcome poverty in the future.
A week before I left on that AJWS Rabbis’ Delegation to Challenging Heights, this is what I packed in my duffel bag:
work clothes (required)
a wide-brimmed hat and wide-mouthed water bottle (required)
a long-sleeved blouse and long skirt (urged by AJWS for visits with traditional villagers)
a mosquito net (absolutely required!)
and — at the last minute, just in case, I — who have always regarded myself as super-healthy and quite hardy — stuffed in bottles/jars/tubes of ibuprofen, anti-itch cream, anti-diarrheal medication, acid controller, Beanaid, and — you never know — protein bars, fruit and nut bars, energy bars, and ... hmm ... a few of those newfangled bags of tuna — which in ordinary circumstances I’d never buy.
Even more than those ordinarily never-used over-the-counter medications I brought, it was my urge to pack extra food that betrayed the anxiety I felt about this Ghana trip. In such a poor country, in such a bare-bones place, would there be enough to eat?
So we rabbis arrived at Challenging Heights, both to build and, truly, to be “rebuilt”: to work on construction projects at CH in the mornings and to learn in the afternoons — about CH, as well as the connections among issues of poverty, hunger and human rights abuses around the world, issues inextricable from our own consumption habits as Americans and our country’s foreign aid and food policies. Who suffered when we Westerners did not buy only Fair Trade commodities? What was the human cost of our not holding multinational corporations accountable
for the labor conditions and wages paid to their workers in poor countries? How did our Farm Bill affect faraway small farms in Africa and Asia?
How much and what did we Americans —among the most affluent people on the planet — actually need?
One day, as we wrapped up our construction project and washed our hands in preparation for lunch, a young girl named Juliette asked one of the rabbis where he was going now.
“To eat lunch,” he said.
“May you have food tomorrow,” she responded softly.
Juliette’s words echoed in our ears throughout the rest of our stay. Perhaps it was the overwhelming gratitude we felt for our own sense of plenty; perhaps it was the humility we felt in the presence of these profoundly modest people who were dedicating all their energy to healing the terrible wounds of their society. Perhaps it was a new understanding of “need.”
I began to pay more and more attention to the beauty of the food made for us by Charles Quansah, the cook at Challenging Heights. Although he had a modest budget and a limited array of local ingredients, he succeeded in preparing the most delicious, expertly spiced, vegetarian versions of traditional Ghanaian meals. How foolish and fearful bringing all those bars and bags of tuna felt.
I asked Mr. Quansah for his recipes, determined to bring home the tastes of Challenging Heights.
Sukkot, a time of thanksgiving for our harvest and our full storehouses, a time when we share meals with friends and family in our fragile sukkahs, a time when we rejoice in plenty and yet remember the reality of scarcity, seems to me the perfect time to include the foods of a culture far away from us geographically but with so much to teach us spiritually.
May we savor these recipes I brought back from Challenging Heights and Ghana today, and may we, and all the peoples of the world, have food tomorrow as well.
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