On Sukkot: Celebrating the Secret Holiday

sukkahIt starts and ends with a house. Before that, there is a pile of lumber, left on the lawn by a rabbi in the middle of the night.

It starts with a marriage, and ends without one; after that, a Jewish New Year’s dinner, a hundred dollars, and Anne Frank. Or perhaps it doesn’t end there at all; it is instead, only the beginning.

Like the house Anne Frank lived in when she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis, Sukkot is a secret holiday, translated literally, as booths. The word ‘sukkot’ is the plural of ‘sukkah.’ Some Jews build them from scratch, others use kits delivered by companies that specialize in making them, and still others—many, in fact—do not build them at all.

The sukkah should be erected just after the high holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It falls about a week afterwards, anywhere from September to late October, and is one of the most festive Jewish holidays, my favorite as a child. Sukkot is a pilgrim’s holiday, honoring those who wandered forty years in the desert and those who made arduous journeys to the holy temple of Jerusalem while living in temporary dwellings along the way.

The sukkah’s roof cannot be solid or permanent. A symbol of life’s fragility, it is made of branches and beams with ample space for the intrusions of sun and rain. Inside, we are to eat, drink, study, argue and celebrate. Though some people sleep in their sukkahs, I always found it too cold.

The holiday is eight days long, which can be hard if you live in Minnesota and try to observe it in the chill October air. I had little to do with it until my son was born, but when he started to toddle and we were building it, I began to see it through his eyes.

I was a transplanted New Yorker married to a cantor in St. Paul, missing friends and the artist’s disregard for life as it is while creating life as it could be. Eventually, there came a time when the marriage I was in broke under the weight of its inhabitants’ differences; and it was time to leave the house and the yard, and the familiar sukkah.

And yet, and yet. We are fated, some of us, to appreciate things only after we lose them, and this was mine. I had taken the garden for granted and it was locked to me now. I found myself losing confidence in my ability to give my son the kind of home he needed to grow up in, not just at his father’s house, but at mine. I might have worried indefinitely had I not met someone who was also struggling through a separation from his long-time partner.

John was a Catholic who had never heard of Sukkot, but who was as committed to returning to his faith as I was to mine. And so it was, as they say in bible stories, that we broke bread together at an ersatz Jewish New Year’s dinner at a restaurant in my new neighborhood.

Just as I was thinking things could not possibly get any odder, John produced a check for $100, which turned out to be payment he received for a column about Anne Frank published in the local paper. “For you,” he said. “To buy a sukkah.” I stared at him, speechless. I had only a few days before the holiday began.

Some days later, I called a friend who referred me to Rabbi Gershon, an observant member of the Lubavitch community in St. Paul. I described what I wanted; a small sukkah, seating up to eight. I told him my Catholic friend had given me money to buy it.

“He is very… idealistic,” he said.

Rabbi Gershon asked for my address, saying I would find the lumber in a day or two. The only time he had available to deliver it was at night, so he would be delivering sukkot at two or three in the morning.

Two days later, a pile of lumber with instructions was left on my lawn. We put it up in half an hour on a crisp autumn day two weeks later. My son and John’s children helped us decorate. John wrote on the wall nearest the door: “Teach us how to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

Looking back at it now, I realize this was actually my first sukkah. I had celebrated in other sukkot, but this was all mine. The day we erected it, I read the children a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about Hoshanna Rabah, the next-to-last night of Sukkot when the sky supposedly opens at midnight and three wishes are granted to the miracle’s witnesses. In Singer’s story, the children discover their wishes only bring them grief until they learn to appreciate what they already have.

For me, it was time to do that as well. I said the Hebrew blessing, thanking God for commanding us to eat in the sukkah and bringing us to this moment. I handed out sandwiches and watched the children, my own and those who had never seen a sukkah, looking at the walls they had decorated. I watched the sun winking through the roof and saw how it was possible to make a home for my son apart from his father’s house. I would still give him something special to remember: a glimpse of what celebrating in the here and now means, and a way to appreciate what you have, more than what you lost.

And though I had no idea if the sky opened that week, I like to think Isaac Bashevis Singer would have been pleased. At last, he would think, someone is wishing for something they already have. Or no longer wishing. Living?

Living, instead.

(Photo: Aaron M)