I always had the feeling, back in The States that there was more gusto to Sukkot than I was experiencing, especially on the intermediate days when I always went to work. Yes, I could have taken off, but there wasn’t much else to do that you couldn’t do any other day of the year – so why bother, why use up my vacation days just to make a point. Plus, Sukkot was usually in October, meaning it was starting to get a bit chilly, and there was often enough precipitation to rain on one’s parade. I remember one particular Sukkot when I was leaving our synagogue, noticing an enormous grinning plastic pumpkin on a lawn up the block. Halloween was everywhere, and our holiday, not so much.
It’s not as if there was never any excitement about the holiday back then. The first year we were in our new home in Caldwell, NJ., we purchased our first sukkah, complete with installation, from Chabad in Morristown. Two Chabadniks came to our house, one of them who knew what he was doing, and his less qualified partner, who went by the moniker Rashi (probably not what his mother named him), whom I described as a human clamp, reciting tehillim (psalms). They assembled the wood panels and put the schach on top. We were good to go. Except that two days later (still before the holiday) there was a hurricane barreling our way. Better safe than sorry, we hastily dismantled our sukkah, storing it in the garage. Good thing, too, because, otherwise, it would have been on its way to the Land of Oz. When things calmed down, we put it up again. Instead of the Chabadniks, this time we had the assistance of Mrs. Sprules, our Gentile neighbor, who had never seen a sukkah before. What is that, she asked, as she graciously pitched in.
There was no point in shoving a sukkah into our lift. Let’s get a new one when we arrive in The Land, which, as you know, we did, placing it on the walkway outside our first apartment. We had been to Israel several times over Sukkot prior to our Big Move, so I was not astonished at the number of sukkahs sprouting up like toadstools on a suburban lawn after the rain. And on those trips, there was plenty for us to do during the intermediate days. But how would we entertain ourselves now that we were full-fledged citizens?
There is the idea of using these few days to ‘walk the land,’ get out, go somewhere, and explore. There was always somebody offering a tiyul to somewhere, and off we went on a tour bus to the far reaches of the country (not that the ‘far reaches’ are that far). Not only did we get to explore places that would have been impossible for us to get to on our own, we were always being reminded that we’re not just in a ‘Jewish neighborhood,’ a community where kosher shopping is as easy as (lardless) pie, or a country where much of what is spoken and written is incomprehensible to me. This is, plain and simple, our true-to-life historic homeland, where we came from in bygone days, and where we’ll be, God willing, forever more. That’s something worthwhile to think about the rest of the year when annoying Israelis are pushing to get ahead of you onto the bus.
By the time we were running out of tour guides and places to go, our friends The Levines came to the rescue. They would come down from their mountain top and spend a few days with us. It goes without saying that we went to a few wineries. That’s ‘somewhere,’ as far as I’m concerned!
And then this year. I don’t have to bore you by repeating the frustrations we have; they’re probably the same you have, wherever you are. And we’re still doing a lot better than other folks, here, there, and everywhere. At least, the virus has not come knocking at our door. (Come to think of it, pretty much nobody has.) Nonetheless, I do lament how Sukkot, zman simchateinu (the time of our joy) has lost its joie de vivre. We’ve been reduced to having get-togethers on Zoom, with folks sitting in their sukkahs with their laptops and their tablets (except for Barbara and me; my 27” iMac is decidedly not portable). With no place else to go, we did get to spend more time in our own sukkah than we did in prior years, even though the heat was unabated throughout the eight days of the holiday.
Where I didn’t get to go was to the minyan outside the shul, which had many others signed up to attend. I’ll wave my lulav and etrog all by my lonesome if nobody minds. There were two things I didn’t mind missing because of my stay-at-home regimen. For example, the hoshanas. In case you are not familiar, this is when the guys get up on the days of Sukkot and mill around in what is supposed to be a line going around the shul. Everyone is holding his lulav and etrog plus a cheat-sheet with the prayers being recited – whose order varies depending on which day of the week the festival has started – all the while keeping a tallit in place. Problem #1. I cannot do all of these activities at the same time. Some people can read while they are walking; they do it all the time with their phones. I cannot; ‘tasking’ is hard enough, let alone multi-tasking.
Even if I could, I have no idea what the hoshanas are all about. We’re asking God to save us based on our merits; for example: Arnon’s granary or Mount He-is-seen. (English translation from an Artscroll siddur) And then we have, ‘Plucked of cheek, given over to the whippers, she shoulders Your burden.’ If anyone understands any of these cryptic messages, please respond.
Then there are the hakafot (pronounced haKAfos in certain places) on Shemini Adzeret/Simchat Torah, which are a BIG deal for lots of people, even women who, more often than not, get to stand around and chat while their menfolk work up a sweat. I understand the emotional attraction. There’s been a lot of introspection, an enormous amount of yuntif-ing the last several weeks, and this being the last day, a good opportunity to let it all hang out. I do not begrudge those who are into it the opportunity to jump up and down with or without a Torah scroll firmly in their grasp. Just not on my dime. Maybe two hours is longer than it needs to be?
But, again, this year, wiser heads prevailed. I’m told that these time-consuming events were drastically curtailed. Each hakafah, which normally can go on for twenty minutes or more, was abridged to three minutes, what with social distancing and the understandable desire to get out of the heat. Are we seeing a pattern emerging here, something to consider in years to come? ELIMINATE THE FRIPPERY! We’ll see what happens.
One other thing I did alone this year was Yizkor, which is recited in shuls on Yom Kippur and Shemini Adzeret. I conclude with the following short article that I had written for the recent edition of Musar Schmooz. Would anybody reflect on its message as they went through the various prayers – or not? I wasn’t there to see.
“When’s Yizkor” By Fred Casden
It happened in Jackson Heights (NYC) a long time ago – before many of you were even born, and where (probably) none of you have ever been. Why was I standing outside the synagogue on that particular Yom Kippur, while most of the congregation was inside? Yizkor. As both of my parents were alive then, I had a reason to excuse myself and get some fresh air. From my vantage point, leaning against a railing, I could spot the middle-aged couple all the way down the block, heading purposefully in my direction.
“When’s Yizkor?”, they asked.
“Ummm, now,” I responded. “I think it’s just about over.”
The look on their faces when they realized they had missed it. That was their sole purpose: to be in shul for Yizkor. The two of then turned around and reluctantly went back the way they had come. As our daughter would say, “You had one job…”
Yizkor was a BIG DEAL back in The States, and people came just for that. The rabbi or the shul president would make a speech, followed by an appeal for funds (as if people hadn’t paid enough for dues and seats). In some places, they would even read off a list of deceased members going back to The Flood. The whole procedure might take half an hour.
Imagine my surprise when I showed up at Musar Avicha on Yom Kippur in 2007, the first year we were here. Is that all there is? Yizkor was over and done with in, I’d say, thirty-nine seconds. After a few of these blink-and-it’s-done Yizkors, I lodged a complaint – through proper channels, of course.
I emphatically do not want to recreate an American-style Yizkor here in Maale Adumim. Life’s too short. But, come on! I am pleased to say that my request has been granted, and we are now given a little more time to reflect and consider.
For some of us, there are many memories but precious few living relatives. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, all gone; brothers, sisters, cousins: some of them gone as well. For us, Yizkor is an opportunity to remember them, individually and collectively. They all led ordinary lives and lived out their time: no martyrs, no war heroes, no victims of terror. None of them changed the world in any dramatic way. They were our families, and Yizkor gives us the opportunity to remember them – even if it takes a few minutes.
Some of you are much younger than we are, and don’t need to stay for Yizkor. When you get up and leave, realize how fortunate you are. May this continue for many years to come.