Sukkah Delicious

This is an excerpt from Jenna Zark‘s new book Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey, which began life at TC Jewfolk and was published by Koehler Books in September. This chapter is reprinted courtesy of Koehler Books.

The night before I left they gave me a party and a brooch. In the center was a rhinestone circle inside a map of Brooklyn. “So you’ll always know where you are,” said my friend Jorie. I still have the brooch in my jewelry box.

When I left Brooklyn and moved to the Midwest, I couldn’t find friends to match the ones I left behind. We weren’t so much close as tight, swimming in a stream of artists in plays, nightclubs, and Renaissance Fairs. Leaving opened up a hole the size of a canyon inside me. I kept looking for what I had and eventually gave up on finding it.

Then suddenly one year at Sukkot, interesting things started to happen, including one of my friends buying me a new sukkah. Others invited me to a sukkah party and we turned on Middle Eastern music and belly danced. They invited me to Seders and Shabbat dinners and book clubs, and we started, for want of a better word, to see each other. They could see me. I could see them.

On one particular Sukkot, my friends’ party was in the evening. Inside everyone was smiling, bustling, cooking, stretching their fingers out for sneaky bites of chocolate, and yelling to be heard above the din. The sukkah was on the porch, and though it was not traditional in the sense that you couldn’t see the sky, the open windows brought in air and the gathering darkness.

The room was decorated with the bright, dry flowers of fall and we sat on cushions on the floor. We lit candles and sat down with our dishes on our laps; it grew darker as we ate and talked. 

There is something to be said about eating delicious sukkah food in the dark next to people who know and care about you. 

After dinner, the talking grew softer, more intense. Some people left and the rest of us drew closer—our hosts; their son and daughters and their new baby. I was sitting across from women I could easily talk to for hours. I have known everyone here for enough years to be able to know their faces in the dark and to recognize the rhythms of their voices, whether close or far away.

We talked about holidays and a friend asked if we shouldn’t get together once a month on Shabbat. It could be potluck so the host or hostess wouldn’t have to cook, and we could make whatever we felt like making. I started grinning like a baby to hear this, remembering dinners in New York with friends in my younger days.

There is something about a circle of close friends that makes you taller, more beautiful and stronger. You can be who you are, and all you have to do is walk in the door and fit like a puzzle piece into a world you own. There are no stairs to climb, no interviews, no auditions; you can plug in and light up the room or shrink to the corner and read a magazine. Whatever you do, you will be part of these people and they will be part of you, whenever you are together.

When I moved I thought I’d lost that feeling forever. You get busy, you get married and you get kids, or you get divorced and then work, work, work and there’s no time for anyone. So you wait for Sukkot, which brings an island of peace in the fall before Thanksgiving descends with its more traditional family dinners. You take time to decorate the sukkah, remembering the booths built by ancient Israelite tribes on their way to Jerusalem to worship in the Holy of Holies.

Or you don’t remember. You think instead of building the little booths now, nailing in boards and hanging branches of dried corn and willow. You make picnic foods and put on sweaters, and when your friend tells you she lost something precious in her life or that she is afraid, you listen, you give her that gift, because she is your friend. And you know you can also tell her you feel lost a lot too, and afraid that you won’t get to where you always wanted to go before you die.

And then, without meaning to, you feel alive in ways you can’t remember feeling for a very long time. There is nothing special, really, that you can point to; just sharing confidences and planning dinners, laughing at a baby’s yawn or hearing a friend tell you something they would never share with anyone else. But add it all up and the world is a little better, softer, rounder, and your candles burn a bit hotter and brighter. You are home, and you don’t need a brooch to tell you so.

Of course, my friends in New York are still very much part of me, and I see them whenever I can. I am grateful too for my family, and heaven knows, they keep me alive more than anyone. But the power we gain in friendships is something else again. I’ve stood on stages and bowed to a roomful of applause; I’ve sung harmonies under tents with bandmates and thanked strangers for their kindness and praise. But nothing has made me stronger than my friends.

On the first night of Sukkot, we say a blessing said on other holidays too, thanking God for bringing us to this moment. As it happens, at this sukkah party, the plans we made for Shabbat didn’t materialize as well as they should; we got busy and slacked off, and it would not be until Hanukkah that I see my friends again. But the memory of this evening in October is still blessing me. Like Sukkot, these friendships may be impermanent, fragile, and mortal—but no less lasting than the holidays they leave behind.