Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sukkot: If it's in Downtown must be famous, right?

For the last time this Jewish holiday season, we're about to duck into a three-day time warp. And into something that in ideal times to come will be the skin of the Leviathan.

Since becoming Jewishly observant, I've always thought of the holiday of Sukkot (often spelled Succot, since any spelling in English is just a phonetic rendering of the Hebrew) as a reminder never to say other religions are weird.  Because many of the rituals associated with this 8-day holiday would strike anyone as...odd.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the lulav and etrog, in themselves curious words that sound like characters out of Star Wars.  The lulav is really a closed palm frond, but it's also shorthand for the frond combined with small branches of myrtle and willow, usually in a woven raffia holder. They're three of the "arba minim," Hebrew for "four species," the fourth being the etrog, a lemonesque bumpy citron fruit.  The sweet international hit Israeli film "Ushpizin" spends a lot of screen-time on the competitive search and bidding each year among the pious for the most "perfect" fruit according to standards of beauty honored for centuries.

During the span of the holiday, Jews do things while holding the lulav and etrog that others might consider quaint.  Every day while facing east, we say a blessing and shake them in all six directions (including up and down). In synagogue, men parade in a circle with the Torah scrolls, holding their arba minim, reciting verses and asking God to "hosha na" (save, please).  These "hoshanas" were basically what followers of Jesus were doing with their palm fronds when he rode on his donkey to Jerusalem just prior to the crucifixion.

At the end of Sukkot, Jews in synagogue beat their bundles of willow rather fiercely, five times on the ground in the "grand" hoshanas (Hoshana Rabba). There's lots of commentary about the significance of the items and actions--harvest, life and death allusions; replication of ancient Temple rituals; the coming together of all types of Jews; reference to future Messianic times--but, bottom line, these are peculiar, but we do what God told us to do.

If you can select, wave, parade and bash a collection of fruit and herbs, you really must want to please God.  That these activities are increasingly popular among American Jews offers an encouraging message; my Google search of "lulav and etrog" yielded 43,300 results, mostly outlets for buying and instructions for using them.

Then, there's the succa (also spelled "sukkah"), the holiday's namesake.  Jews build not-so-watertight shelters in their backyards, according to very explicit rules.  The key is that the "roof" must be of once-living organic material--at our house, fir boughs freshly cut from backyard trees.  When we lived in LA, our topping, which has the throat-tickling name "skakh," was 20-foot palm fronds, also from our yard.  Those with limited greenery access, no time, or laziness often use bamboo mats; as long as it was once growing and unadulterated, it works--but it must be applied loosely, so the sun and moon can shine through.

Throughout the holiday Jews move into the succa, at least figuratively, eating, spending maximum time, and, if possible, sleeping there. It's preferable to beautify the succa and use one's finest tableware to really internalize and honor the occasion.  There's lots of symbolism--dependence on God; withdrawal from materialism; remembrance of the "clouds of glory" that surrounded the Jews wandering in the wilderness after the exodus; harvest, with its seasonal conclusions; and a hearkening to Messianic times, when it's said all will sit in harmony in a giant succa made from the skin of the Leviathan (whatever that is).

Now, constructing all this can be time-consuming, and the finished product to many seems plenty weird.  One time my father-in-law set up his succa in the front yard of his Santa Monica apartment building.  In his enthusiasm for the mitzvah (commandment) to spend as much time as possible, one night he'd brought his sleeping bag and was snoozing happily when suddenly he was awakened by a hulking form with a foul odor who entered the succa and proceded to take some blankets and pillows and settle in.  Startled, my father-in-law asked what was going on.  The inebriated, smelly homeless fellow who was making himself at home replied, "Whatsa matter man?  There's room in here for another one!"

Perhaps the most memorable succa we've constructed here in the Great Northwest was the one with skakh that an accommodating tree-trimming company spared from their shredder upon our request.  As our family and guests, totalling 12, began enjoying our first meal under the fragrant boughs, we started noticing small orange items falling on our table, our hair, and into our soup.  The items moved, wriggling in our bowls: The foliage was infested with worms.  Group scream.

"Fractured Bubble," winner at Sukkah City
I can even write about the strange customs of this holiday because of the reassuring fact that apparently it has now gone mainstream, as in Midtown Manhattan, New York.  Last week, in Union Square, artists and architects from around the world constructed their unique visions of innovative sukkot, all built according to Jewish law.  The non-profit group Reboot announced in May they'd give $10,000 each to selected competitors to erect their sukkot; 600 entrants from 48 countries responded. A dozen concepts were built, displayed September 19-20, and a winner, determined by 17,000 spectators' votes, was announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.  The victor, "Fractured Bubble" by New York architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan, remains on display throughout the holiday's entire 8 days.  It got coverage in the New York Times and New York Magazine and a raft of Jewish publications; all the finalists move to the New York Center for Architecture for exhibit.

So maybe our peculiar Jewish observance is now chic.  It's called "the time of our rejoicing," and I do look forward to it every year, with family gathering and special adventures mounting ladders to perch large fir branches across a wooden roof frame.  We decorate our succa with tin-foil chains made by our children when they were small; visible through a window (impervious to inevitable Northwest rain) is the rainbow construction-paper chain little hands made 15 years ago. Colored lights, fake grape clusters, apples and pears evoke the harvest theme; posters, including the Jewish historical figures we invite into the succa as "guests" and the agricultural species of Israel, were used by my husband in his sukkot before we were married a quarter-century ago. My clever innovation was to take apart plastic Target dorm doorway hangers and use them as garlands; the bright stars and circles and other shiny foil garlands make our succa sparkle.

Maybe we're eccentric, in this Skype and YouTube age, to cling to ancient traditions, but somehow sitting outside in our coats in this transitional season joins us to our fellow Jews, across time and around the world, and that's a connection you just can't get from a website. Tonight's the last chance we'll have to eat our warm homemade challah bread dipped in honey in our succa; it's somehow melancholy to come inside and resume normal life where each family member goes to a different room or a different house and we put away our sweet reminders of continuity for another year.

Here's what it was like to tour around Sukkah City in New York's Union Square:

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