Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Up on the Roof - Reflections on Sukkot 5775

Mizrachi Family Sukkah 5775
Sukkot fast approaches, and it is anticipated with giddy glee around here. For the uninitiated, Sukkot (meaning huts; singular sukkah = hut) is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. For seven days in mid-autumn, we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled, carpeted homes, and domicile ourselves in a rickety hut with a "roof" that the stars peek through. Crazy, huh? More like crazy brilliant.

Woven into Sukkot is an extremely rich tapestry of symbolism. The sukkah represents the divine cloud that enshrouded the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years; it represents the Holy Temple itself; it reminds us that our notions of security are ephemeral, that real security comes only with our complete reliance on the A-lmighty; it makes us look skyward, constantly on watch for rain, and rain/water play an integral role in the meaning of Sukkot.

Our Bubbe and Zayde loved Sukkot, positively reveled in it. (Of course they called it "Sookis" in the European pronunciation.) They had this goofy octagonal aluminum gazebo with a domed roof on the patio in the back yard. Come Succot time, Zayde would pry the roof panels off and heave the pine boughs on. Bam - instant sukkah. Then came the decorations: stringing popcorn and cranberries, pictures made by the kids in school, and the strings of little colored twinkle lights (they're Sukkah lights, don't even start...)

We grew up in the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey, where pine was abundant, so we used pine for the roof of the sukkah (the sukkah roof material is called "schach", and has to be done right to make the sukkah kosher). For our family, Sukkot just wasn't Sukkot without the fragrant aroma of the pine; without both noodles - and needles - in the soup. To this day, when I walk by a Christmas tree lot, to me at least, it's the smell of Sukkot.

Bubbe and her lieutenants were bustling back and forth from the kitchen in the house, ferrying all the delicacies of the holiday meal: the gefilte fish, steaming chicken soup, stuffed cabbages, Shake-n-Bake chicken (Zayde loved that stuff), compote. Tea. Cakes. Drinks. It just never ended. Somehow, 15 or more of us squeezed in around the picnic table shoehorned into that little sukkah. 

I think most people today go with purpose-built bamboo mats for schach. They're convenient enough, and they roll up for storage and reuse. But to me (apologies) they're a little...sterile.

For us, it's just gotta be pine schach. So every year, we go to the trouble to source fresh pine - cut it, haul it, heave it up there, and then dispose of it after the holiday passes. It's sticky work, makes a mess of the truck, and is an overall hassle. But it just wouldn't be Sukkot without it.

Why do I bother? Why not hit the "Easy Button" and cave like everyone else with the bamboo schach?

For me, at least, there's three reasons. First, it reminds me of the Lakewood I grew up in, a Lakewood that doesn't exist anymore; the Lakewood before Lakewood became LAKEWOOD, the holy bastion of chareidut.

Second, I stand in quiet opposition to the juggernaut of rigid external conformity, to the "chumra-zation" which has swept over the Torah observant world. I remember great rabbis, tremendous talmidei chachamim, who, back in the day, didn't wear the current de rigueur "uniform" - shloompy black suit, crumpled black hat, tzitzit worn out, long beard. I remember when people focused more on their pnimiut - their personal character traits, and far less on the external manifestations of frumkeit (observance).

Don't get me wrong: if your family tradition is chareidi, good on you. But that's not the only way to live a Torah life. I know of people today who escape to smaller Jewish towns like Allentown for a Shabbat or two, just to get away from the suffocating, oppressive environment of Brooklyn and Lakewood, where any deviation in behavior can brand a person an outcast, an outsider. 

Sorry. I refuse to compete in the frum Olympics, where everyone, it seems, is trying to prove to the world how religious they are, to out-frum the next guy with new and ever more clever chumras (legal stringencies). 

I don't need to demonstrate my religious credentials to anyone. I wear a (knitted) kippah srugah, not a black velvet yarmulke. And I put blue jeans on when I change the oil on the truck. (And shhh...don't tell anyone but I don't even own a black hat.) And I go with pine schach, because it's "hiddur mitzvah" - it beautifies our experience of the sukkah, and is a poke in the eye of bamboo conformity.

The last reason is because that's how Bubbe & Zayde did it. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, guides us unfailingly in the conduct of our everyday life. But overlaid on the Shulchan Aruch is a mesorah, a tradition, that we receive from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

I didn't have to look it up in the book how to make a kiddush on Friday night; I had a Zayde to teach me. I didn't have to look up how to daven (pray); I had a Zayde to teach me. It was Zayde who taught me to bring flowers home to my wife every Friday for Shabbat. We learned what we lived. And among the myriad other things, Zayde taught me how to build a sukkah. With pine it was, and so with pine it shall remain.

There is a tradition that each night of Sukkot, a mystical guest visits the Sukkah. Father Abraham the first night, Isaac the second night, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. But we have two other unseen guests. When I sit at the table, looking up at the pine and around at the magical glow the twinkling lights cast around the sukkah, I know, to the core of my being, that Bubbe & Zayde visit our sukkah, and get as much joy from it as we do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Oh Shuk, I think you wrote this just for me! One of my most cherished memories of our Bubbe and Zaide is sitting in that very sukkah you mention on the benches and waiting for the food to come to the table. In those moments before, anticipating the delicious food to come, I most vividly remember the beautiful reflection of the sukkah lights in the silverware - on the knives and spoons. I remember painting pears and apples in silver and gold to hang in and adorn the sukkah. As we prepare our own sukkah, I will remember your words and hold in my heart and mind the memory and spirit of our grandparents who live on as a blessing through us, and by what we pass on to our own children. Thank you for what you wrote.

    1. Thanks Gab - and chag sameach to the whole Ohio wing of the clan!!

  2. Beautiful--one of your best.

  3. Thanks, Sam - Chag Sameach to all!