Jewish Journal

Christmas in Sukkot?

by Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein

Posted on Sep. 27, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Last year we moved into a home large enough to build the sukkah we've been dreaming of for a long time. My partner, Stephen Ariel, designed a sturdy, easy-to-assemble structure, and with the abundant bamboo in our backyard we could harvest homegrown skakh (branches used for covering the sukkah). Thanks to help from my buddy Tom, the sukkah was erected in an afternoon. The only thing left was what I had been waiting for -- the decor. I dashed off to Target to get blue and white lights, then to the Mitzvah Store for ornaments, lulav and etrog. With our friends Wendy and Bo's boys, Alek and Lukas, we were ready for hiddur ha'mitzvah, magnifying the mitzvah of making and dwelling in the sukkah.

I forget when it happened, but it was one of those "It should have been in a Woody Allen film" moments. As we were in the fervor of decorating, my partner came into the backyard and observed the giddy joy of what was going on.

"Gosh, it sure seems like Christmas time at the rabbi's house," he lovingly remarked.

We had a good laugh, but the comment stuck with me, ultimately resonating in a profound and unexpected manner a few days later.

We hung the lights as Sukkot drew near. Alec and Lucas provided valuable design assistance (as you would expect from a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old), and the etrog was placed in its multicolored velvet case. All that remained was to bring in the ushpizin, the honored, memorialized guests.

Facing east, I hung a beautiful banner reminding us of our heralded ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David. While the kids and I had generous ornaments and artwork to grace the roof and the lower walls, only the classic ushpizin occupied eye-level territory -- and somehow, despite all of what was hanging, something was missing.

With my liberal Jewish mind in high gear, I got it -- I needed more ushpizin! Besides the glory of our ancient guests, aren't there so many more who no longer live, yet still infuse us with wisdom and illuminate our lives through their accomplishments?

The next day, I sat at the computer and created generations of new ushpizin to hang from our walls, feeling as if my whole Jewish perspective opened to a wider lens. Where to begin?

First, my biological family -- many, sadly, who are gone but nonetheless inspired me in what I tried to accomplish first as a performing artist and now as a rabbi. Lore and Suissa Jeremias, my grandmother and her sister, concert pianists in Germany; Sam Goldman, the middle-class tailor who was a world-class grandpa; Shemayah Stein, my great-great-great grandfather, the first of four rabbis in our family; and among others, my mom and dad, whose presence I still miss. That placard alone inspired deep memories, but there were more to come: Theodore Herzl, Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin; Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Sigmund Freund; Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, Baruch Spinoza, Abraham Geiger and Abraham Joshua Heschel; S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Anne Frank; Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Judy Chicago and Louise Nevelson; Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, whom I was blessed to know both as teacher and friend. These names, printed and laminated, now hung from the branches of the roof, and what was formerly only pretty décor now became a swirling medley of colors, textures, history and heritage.

As the sun set, I flipped the switch and our sechach was aglow, illuminated by myriad blue and white lights. The table, set with the lulav and etrog in their pride-of-place in the center, and the too-fun-not-to-pass-up glowing grape clusters (what can't you find at Judaica stores?) wrapped gracefully around plates brimming with dessert delicacies.

Guests arrived, and with them, engaging comments: "Who was Louise Nevelson?"; "I didn't know Pissarro was Jewish!"; "Who are all these Steins?"

Jews, Muslims and Christians partook in our mitzvah of leisheiv ba'sukkah (to sit in the sukkah) with equal measure of wonder and delight, curiosity and respect.

We gathered together to shake the lulav and etrog and spoke of God's bountiful gift of food enough to feed the world -- and humanity's folly in not allowing that to happen. We remembered those suffering in Darfur, those who tragically understand the notion of "temporary dwelling" in a way we would never want to know. We thought of so many citizens of our city living in cardboard boxes not 10 miles from our home in the Miracle Mile, and what a miracle it was to just have a house to call your home.

We resolved through our ritual to diminish the nomadic reality of this world in some way -- to take from our experience within the sukkah not simply a lovely Jewish ritual, but a sacred mandate to engage in tikkun olam. I stood amid family, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances featuring a rainbow of ages, faiths and backgrounds, all with faces aglow. As I observed this collage of humanity, warmth and generosity of spirit, I thought, "Maybe Stephen Ariel was right. Maybe there is a bit of 'Christmas,' literally Moshiachzeit -- a messianic time -- infusing our bamboo-roofed hut."

Sometimes God's gifts come in surprising packages.

Stephen Julius Stein is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the director of the synagogue's Center for Religious Inquiry.

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