The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The little Jewish Grandma says "He had a hat!"

The whole country is on vacation this week. Scattered across the country are art festivals, alternative art festivals, alternative performance art festivals, wine festivals, music festivals, and in addition thousands are flocking northward to spend shekels in regions devastated by the war with Hezbollah. Youth groups and yeshivot have programs where music with an Ashkenazi accent goes thudding into the night way past bedtime. The old city is packed with tours and tourists and street musicians (and riot police).

But it is still sukkot, and even a few reasonably secular jews have built the traditional four sided huts along with the observant. Plus, any restaurant that is kosher and has seating, has a sukkah for the week. And since we are in the Judean hills and not Minneapolis or Toronto, the weather is warm enough during the day to appreciate shade, but not so cold at night that you need a heater just to eat dinner. Note to Chicagoans: in Israel it is not customary to eat dinner in the Sukkah with your winter gloves on, mainly because you don’t need them.

No building represents Israeli Jews better than the sukkah. Laced together with twine and zip ties, it is an unsteady ramshackle compilation of sheets, planks, bamboo and palm fronds. Israelis love their sukkot- you put it together 1-2-3, and if an end doesn’t fit, WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!, it gets pounded into place. Halfway is the way. No building codes, no safety concerns. Balconies 4 stories off the ground have their railings unmounted so that the family can have a sukkah. If there is a balcony above them, they simply extend the sukkah outward off the balcony another 2 meteres- and this is even when the balcony itself is only 0.5 meters deep to begin with. Another sukkah may be built halfway up the wall of that one.

In fact, this week Jerusalem is the Mishnayot of Tractate Sukkah come alive. Sukkot are built on rooftops and in trees, in courtyards and over other sukkot. Half sukkot, round sukkot, and half-round sukkot are all about. They explode outward from windows, ledges, atriums and doorways. Half the sukkah is in the street? Its okay. Built it in front of the door that says “Do not block- emergency exit!” ? Of course. And to meet halachic requirements, they twist at odd angles, are shorter or taller to meet demand, can have 5 walls or be made up only of windows.

Israeli Jews are not the most patient among those of the Hebrew faith, and some of the sukkot are a danger to those who occupy them- or those who are in the space right below them. This should come as no surprise to those of us who know and love Israelis. As for Jerusalem, it is a mountainous city, and an old one at that- this means that back yards are a rare occourence, even for the rich. Gardens are what fill the space surrounding homes- fountains, vines, trees and flowerbeds. A big swath of space that is only grass or stone pavement is unheard of for any home that was not a consulate or monastery.
So Israeli Jews are inventive, building wherever the space allows. Many of the sukkot can not be easily seen. They are hidden behind fences and gates, behind laundry lines and trees. Some are studies or gazebos with roofs removed. Most are not on the ground floor and from street level they can not be seen.

All in all, the majority of Sukkot in Jerusalem are hidden.

These numerous hidden sukkot can only be found easily at night when lit up from the inside. The lights within illuminate the colored tarps and bedsheets that form sukkot walls, and what is invisible in daylight is revealed as glorious color in the night. Daytime vistas that reveal a handful of booths are transformed into a panoply of sukkot at night.

Consider this for a moment, that most of the sukkot in Jerusalem are best searched out at night, when along with the lights, you can find them by the sounds of family dinners and the smells of dining al fresco. This is not, I think just a matter of urban topography. There is something endemic to Sukkot that is represented by illumination from within. Unlike Hannukah, sukkot are not about the publicizing of a miracle, rather they are spaces for celebration and happiness. According to the Gemara (Bavli Sukka 26a) a person who is unable to be happy is exempt from dwelling in the Sukkah. Sukkot are supposed to be places of joy- of feasting, song, gladness and delight. How remarkable that in Jerusalem the sukkah serves as an echo of the human heart. When the human heart is full and glad, a person’s face shines and radiates that joy which they are holding inside- just as the sukkah lets the joy it holds shine out into the night. It is a remarkable festival, for it lets that is internal radiate outward.

I might suggest that it is not that the Sukkot of Jerusalem are best found at night: rather, they are best seen and understood at night. That is when their lesson shines the clearest.


Blogger Robbie said...

I have a back yard here.

8:22 PM  
Blogger ranger said...

You also have a clothes dryer, shabbat-timer controlled lights, as well as a lemon tree and grape vines... we are all jealous.

10:42 PM  

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