This is a story about Sukkot.
If you are not familiar with this weeklong Jewish holiday (often translated into English as Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths), you have a lot of company. Although Sukkot is a major holiday and one of our shalosh regolim (three festivals), along with Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), even many Jews are unfamiliar with it.
The holiday has its origins in the Biblical command “on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of booths, seven days for the Lord.” Leviticus 23:24
The very sound of the word “booths” makes me laugh. The image that comes to my mind is that of a toll both on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Actually, the booths referred to in Leviticus were temporary shelters that were hastily erected using leaves, branches and whatever natural material was at hand while the Jews wandered through the desert for forty years.
Sukkot is a fall festival that occurs at the time of the harvest. Hence, it is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering. It makes one wonder whether makeshift dwellings might have been erected in the fields at the peak of the harvest when it may have been too far for the hands to travel between their homes and the fields daily.
These days, the sukkah or booth is often erected of bamboo poles or 2x4s, with sod, branches and leaves used for a loose covering. It is traditional to eat all one’s meals in the sukkah for a week, and the Orthodox make it large enough so that they can sleep in it and watch the stars through the spaces in the thatched roof. Kids love this form of camping out in the backyard.
Aside from the sukkah itself, the other major tradition of this festival is the waving of the lulav and etrog (palm fronds and citron). As harvest and fertility symbols, they remind us nonfarming city dweller types of the enormous bounty with which we have been blessed by God.
When I lived in areas where synagogues were available, I usually made an effort to go to worship and eat a meal in the sukkah at least once during the holiday. In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, however, it is easy to forget about this colorful holiday entirely. I have been reading online that many assimilated Jews have never even heard of it. Kind of sad, really.
I recall a rabbi who once related to the congregation in my presence that many Orthodox Jews in Israel decorate their sukkot with strings of colored Christmas lights. Seems like a bit of an irony there. Most of the sukkot I have seen in the United States have been decorated with pine cones, fruit and pictures drawn by children.
I am about the most unhandy person you can imagine, and there is exactly zero chance of me ever attempting to construct my own sukkah. Nevertheless, our living situation this week has unintentionally helped me to feel a connection to the wandering Jews of old.
We are in the process of moving and, with three days left in our current residence, the place is rather empty. Due to the expense of moving furniture and the fact that we are moving in to my mother-in-law’s fully furnished home, we have sold or donated just about everything. The TV went a week ago; over the weekend, we sold the living room set, the kitchen set, the washer and the dryer. All that remains to find homes are the refrigerator and our bed, which will be picked up by their new owners on Wednesday night and Thursday, respectively.
So my wife and I have been sitting in canvas camp chairs in our big empty living room the past few nights. Instead of television, we have the music we’ve downloaded onto our smart phones. We moved our folding table into the living room to serve as a staging area for packing (see photo); one edge remains bare so that we can pull up folding chairs and eat. As for eating, well, we are doing our best to use up all of our refrigerated and frozen food. We are almost there. Needless to say, this can result in some rather interesting and humorous meals. No surprise that a pizza was ordered today.
Aside from food itself, the question remains as to what to use for utensils with which to eat said food. The majority of our dishes, pans and flatware have served us for entirely too many years and will not be traveling north with us. All of our forks and spoons were discarded.
Last night, I awoke at about 2 AM with my stomach rumbling and complaining that the needle was on Empty. I hadn’t eaten much in the way of dinner. I hauled myself out of bed, headed for the kitchen and began rummaging among the dribs and drabs of our remaining food. In the fruit bin, I found the last of our citrus supply, one lonely grapefruit. But it was a fat, juicy grapefruit.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I cut my grapefruit in half and then scoop out the sections with a spoon. The problem is you have to have a spoon. The only utensil available was a plastic fork. How on earth would I eat a grapefruit with a plastic fork?
Well, I am living proof that it can be done. By using the plastic tines to prise out as much of the flesh as possible from each section, it then becomes possible to use one’s fingers to grab onto the pulpy parts and pull the remainder of the section of the grapefruit half. This is a bit of a time-consuming process, particularly if you intend to eat the entire grapefruit. On a paper plate while seated on a folding chair at two in the morning.
Although I haven’t been able to attend a Sukkot service or sit in a sukkah to eat a meal this year, I believe I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to camp out in a temporary dwelling for a few days. And if I am not able to wave the lulav or look up at the stars through my thatched roof this time, I just have to step outside to watch the palms up and down the street rustling in the breeze and to observe the canopy of stars that dots the sky every night out here in the middle of the desert.