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Tuesday, October 10, 2006


This year, for, I think, the first time since I was in high school, we built a sukkah.

Friends -- Matt and Nancy and Luke and Jamey and Niko and Sklyar -- that's friends ranging from one to seven to thirty-seven -- came last Saturday to help erect the thing in our sloping backyard. Most of the boards were preserved intact, in my mother's garage, since those days of Sukkot at the Rosenbaums in the Eighties. (Jamey, vaguely remembering dinners in it in high school but, not being Jewish, not having fully grasped the concept at the time, said "I always wondered what happened to that wonderful gazebo you guys had had..."). But the old sukkah had been built onto the side of my parents' house; we'd need four poles for a freestanding one. Also, Mom had chucked the cinderblocks.

So Noah and I spent a blissful Saturday morning wandering through the aisles of Home Depot, talking about wood and brick and sand, and also fire trucks, Elmo, Guk Guk (Noah's imaginary friend), Oh Snow (Noah's imaginary dog), Pak Pak (Guk Guk's imaginary cat) and so on. Eventually we emerged with twelve cinderblocks, two two-by-four-by-eight-foot lengths of board, and various compact flourescent bulbs that had attracted my magpie-like attention. Outside the Home Depot there was a Halloween-Themed Fire Safety Demonstration Arts And Crafts Fair and Baked Goods Giveaway Promotional Event, so we talked to real firemen and a man named Homer with an enormous, iconic styrofoam head, and took the cake and bags of candy and kid-sized orange smocks and construction kits which were thrust upon us. For Noah, it was all, inside the store and out, one cavalcade of wonder, which he treated with equal interest and discernment and inquisitive attention -- the bricks and boards, the cake, the fire truck, the collosally deformed creature known as Homer.

The sukkah must be open to the sky, but bedecked with leafy boughs. Luckily our backyard is a jungle (one barely discerns the faint outlines of what was once a very large wooden frame for a raised garden, under the explosion of shaggy sheaves of grass and the rangy, packed, adolescent volunteer trees) so there was no lack of leafy boughs...

It took an afternoon. By evening it stood, a six-by-six-by-eight space, with a slight overhang, framed roughly in wood, wearing a leafy crown. Akward and festive and jury-rigged and lovely.

We said the Shehechianu, the best prayer of all, the prayer of thanks for getting to live to see something wonderful, which you can say whenever anything wonderful happens.

Monday night the whole extended family, plus the family of another friend who remembered our sukkot of the Eighties, ate pizza and drank wine in the sukkah. Three tables, twelve bodies, candles, plates, and utensils. It's a pretty long sweep of a hill, for a backyard in a chunk of nineteen-fifties-rambler-development inner suburbia, and in the dark, coming out of the kitchen with another tray of pizza, coming up through the tangles of the boughs of our unpruned, unruly trees, I saw the sukkah perched up there in the dark, a little ramshackle floating house of dancing candlelight, and everyone was singing. I slowed down, prolonging the moment before the song resolved to a song I would recognize, before I'd be among them and serving pizza and back in the social moment.

My life is pretty thick with joy, as a parent of small children, but most of my joy is in the midst of some rough and tumble game or in some nestling moment when kids need tanking up on comfort, so it's joy that's kind of going on in the background, without the conscious me having much space to reflect on or attend to it. And I find that's pretty typical with joy, that it's there most strongly when you don't have time to start thinking too much about it. And indeed there was something unsustainable about the moment on the hill, once I started narrating to myself. They were singing "Alouette", and it looked so much like a scene illustrating Familial Happiness in a Dogma film, I had to laugh at myself; and that's a different kind of pleasure.

I didn't use the directions for the sukkah that I printed from Our Trusted Servitor The Intarweb. Instead I used my mom's vintage copy of that revolutionary document of Hippie Judaism, The Jewish Catalog. As that wise book observes, the great and salutary thing about a sukkah is that you have to build it yourself. It is meant to be homemade, ungainly, inexpert. The Israelites wandering the Sinai were no experts; Sukkot is about being lost, and making do, together.

No wonder the holiday is somewhat neglected by American Jews. Certainly, Americans like DIY projects. But Americans do not like being lost. And Americans, and maybe American Jews in particular, like the idea of improvement, of getting somewhere, of accumulation, of upward mobility, the idea that work will make you safe. (Arbeit macht sicher!) As so often (consider Shabbat, consider Yom Kippur), Judaism the religion works to loosen, to heal, to mitigate against, the hardened crusts of anxiety and unease and stubbornness and angry competition and dogged, joyless labor left in us by Judaism the historical condition.

The radical thing about a sukkah is not that you build it in a day; it is that you take it down after a week. It is the Jewish analog of a Buddhist sand painting. It teaches transience. It teaches you how to get rained on. Like Yom Kippur, Sukkot reminds you that everything will be swept away; but Sukkot reminds you, too, that that is a matter for rejoicing.

Posted by benrosen at October 10, 2006 08:10 PM | Up to blog

Hey Ben

I was happy to be of some small service in the erecting of the thing, and you know? I totally got all that, without even being able to stay and enjoy the pizza and the family and the Alouette.

Curiously, although American, I don't much enjoy DIY projects (except as they relate to making music), and I kind of do enjoy being lost. But of course, I'm all about being unrooted in life, and floating down the stream, merrily merrily, and all that.

But it's nice once in a while to latch onto someone's branch as you float by, catch up, and exchange hugs before floating on.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at October 10, 2006 08:42 PM

Oddly enough, in our discussion at shul about the Sukkah, several people talked about how much fun it is to put the thing up, but nobody mentioned how much fun it is to take down. I didn't mention it, largely because I had talked enough already, but also because all I had was the observation, without any meaning to attach to it. So. Thanks for elucidating.

I made a Sukkah for the first time last year, because for the first time we had a large private backyard, and because my mother-in-law had everything we needed in the shed, because it's that kind of shed. It was wonderful.


Posted by: Vardibidian at October 11, 2006 10:00 AM

Ben, you're a sweetheart. I like this. "It teaches you how to get rained on." And oh my god, the Jewish Catalog, it's been ages...

Posted by: Karen at October 13, 2006 03:24 PM

Just a note on my mom's behalf to say that she wandered over here because I'd been talking with her about the most recent AI thread, and she really enjoyed this entry.

Posted by: Dan Percival at October 20, 2006 12:40 PM

(I mean, I enjoyed it, too, but somehow "I liked it" doesn't seem a substantial enough comment to make -- I'd be making it all the time, all sorts of places. But: Other People, especially Mothers, are Topical.)

Posted by: Dan Percival at October 20, 2006 12:42 PM

Cool! Hi Dan's mom!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 20, 2006 12:44 PM
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