On Sunday, my wife and I drove out to the Valley to buy a new sukkah. It was time. I’d bought our old sukkah from an Armenian Catholic who supplied booths to vendors in farmers’ markets. When his orders began to spike in September, he realized he could have a good little side business selling these things to Jews for their holiday of Sukkot. Only in America.
That was 15 years ago. This time, I couldn’t find a listing for his company, but I did reach the owner of a place called Mitzvahland on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.
He spoke in a thick Persian accent, and I felt like I had just reached the trading pit on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “Sukkahs? Yes! Size? Yes, we got it, we got it! Tarp, yes, come!” And he hung up. If you want a sukkah, call a Judaica store the day after Yom Kippur. If you’re looking for customer service, call L.L. Bean.
So we drove to Encino, the Old Country. When I grew up there, there were Jews, but nothing like what’s happened since. In the late ’70s, the Iranian Jews arrived. Then waves of Israelis settled in. We third-generation Ashkenazi children moved to the city or farther west, to Conejo. What was once a monochromatic, acculturated, if not assimilated, Jewish community became more observant, diverse, multiethnic.
We pulled into a mini-mall near Balboa Boulevard. Across a large storefront shul hung a huge banner that advertised the time for prayer services. Mitzvahland took up two more storefronts.
Inside, it was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. An elderly Iranian-Jewish man was behind the cash register, helping a customer and speaking into his cell phone. The store phone rang. He picked it up and now had three conversations going — one in English, one in Hebrew, one in Farsi.
A dozen customers crowded the sukkah display, next to which lay a stack of shiny metal pipes and a huge mound of bamboo poles. Two young religious Jews helped them make sense of the sukkah kits for sale. A woman in a low-cut blouse — unlikely to be Orthodox — waited patiently. Behind her two barrel-chested Israelis wearing tight T-shirts advertising a nightclub held pounds of bright plastic fruit decorations, eager to pay. Another Israeli man walked in, checkbook in hand.
“What is the end of the line?” he asked, slightly mistranslating the Hebrew phrase.
At the counter, a young father ordering his first sukkah presented a list of specs right out of “This Old House.” “Just get the kit,” the owner said.
My wife went to the back of the store, where a vast table was covered in neatly laid out etrogs and boys formed branches of myrtle, willow and palm into a sheaf of lulavs. A boy of perhaps 8, wearing an embroidered velvet kippah, was braiding dried palm fronds together to form the holster that holds the three branches together. “Does that come with the sukkah?” a woman, clearly a first-time sukkah buyer, asked.
Nope — another $45, at least.
Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish, but we didn’t know from lulavs and etrogs or even Sukkot. Those were the “Mad Men” years. It was edgy and funny to be culturally Jewish, like Barbra or Woody, but to practice the rituals, to identify religiously — that was for the Orthodox.
Slowly, that has changed — partly because of the immigrants, unabashed in their affiliations, and partly because the needs that the mysteries of tradition and community fill could not long go unmet. The doomsayers keep telling us that a new generation is turned off to Judaism. But one sure sign they’re wrong is the number of non-Orthodox Jews who now put up sukkot, or celebrate the holiday with others.
“Thirty years ago, people thought sukkot were only for synagogues,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who grew up Conservative, told me. “It was a revelation you could build one in your backyard. Now, everyone and their mother is selling sukkot on Pico-Robertson.”
Sukkot turns an average autumn evening into summer camp. No one does it because they have to, like Yom Kippur, but because they want to.
And so, even as the American Jewish community has grown wealthier, more powerful, more stable, we find ourselves pulled toward Sukkot, the symbol of a tentative existence.
“We dwell in fragile booths because we are secure,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe. “Only someone who feels safe chooses a rickety dwelling.”
In our solid, complicated lives, we yearn to reconnect to what is true, simple and sweet: shelter, food, community.
The night before we decided to buy a new sukkah, I had a dream that I was 15 years old and working at Miss Grace Lemon Cake, where I worked on and off through high school.
In my dream, I was packing the warm sugary cakes into their tins — just as I used to do as a teenager — but every so often I’d stop to eat a slice. In the morning, the dream meant nothing to me.
It was only after we loaded our sukkah kit in our car and drove away that I realized: Miss Grace Lemon Cakes used to be located in the exact storefront where Mitzvahland is now. What was sweet, is still sweet, and will remain sweet — and we will keep returning to it, as the saying goes, generation after generation. There is no end of the line.
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