October 16, 2018

Ushpizin: Who Would You Invite Into Your Sukkah?

During Sukkot, we gather with in our temporary structures (sukkot) meant to recall those used by the children of Israel after they left Egypt and wandered the desert. 

One tradition suggests that, in addition to hosting family and friends, we invite specific Jewish historical figures as ushpizin (guests): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. More recently, a new tradition has suggested adding Jewish historical women: Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther. Even more contemporary interpretations expand the list of potential guests to include relatives who have passed away and other important or inspiring figures from our lives.

We asked rabbis, community leaders, comedians and others to tell us which historical or living inspirational figures they would like to symbolically invite into their sukkah this year:

Rachel Grose, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan Association
Anne Frank. Her ability to believe in people despite her desperate and terrifying situation is an inspiration for all of us to make the effort to see the best in everyone.


Joshua Holo, Dean of the Los Angeles Campus and Associate Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Legendary actor Archibald Leach once said of himself, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Good company and lively conversation, purveyed under palm trees and lubricated with sacramental wine, enliven Sukkot’s moniker as “the season of our joy.” My dream ushpiz is one part self-examiner, perhaps a little hungover from the previous week’s introspection, and two parts conversationalist, suitable for public radio’s “The Dinner Party Download.” Who better to carry the banter in the sukkah than Cary Grant? Fabulous stories of a bygone age, threaded with mildly rueful self-discovery, all in real time. 

“Haman, so he could see that his plan backfired. I’d also make sure that all the fruit in my sukkah were hanging from the bamboo in tiny nooses.” — Elon Gold


Elon Gold, comedian and actor
Haman. I’d seat him at the kids’ table in my sukkah because he’s a big, stupid baby, and so he could see that his plan backfired and that we have lived on, generation after generation, flourishing, beautiful and strong as ever. I’d also make sure that all the fruit in my sukkah were hanging from the bamboo in tiny nooses. Just to remind him of the good old days and what happens to anyone who tries to wipe out our people. 

Also, Noah’s next door neighbor. Most people would want Noah himself to visit but I have a few questions for his neighbor: How annoying was all that construction morning, noon and night for all those years? Does he believe in climate change? Also, when you saw your neighbor building an ark, it didn’t pique your curiosity? Because if it were me, I’d be either kissing Noah’s ass big-time to get a couple seats on the ark or start building my own. 

And Golda Meir. I know a lot of comedians, all sharp, quick-witted and fun to be around. But every quote I’ve ever heard or read of Golda’s was laced with biting, brilliant humor. I would love nothing more than to hear her regale us with stories of Israel in its “Golda-en” age and get her take on the modern world. (I bet she’d figure out who wrote that anonymous New York Times op-ed). And then I’d ask her to share her thoughts on Haman and Noah’s neighbor, and then just sit back and laugh as she laces into them as only Golda knows how.


E. Randol Schoenberg, attorney and genealogist
I spend a lot of time working on genealogy, so there are naturally many ancestors I would really like to have met, especially my two grandfathers, the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl. Their musical legacies continue to inspire me and so many others, but I would love to be able to just sit around a table and get to know them. The conversation wouldn’t have to turn to weighty topics, although I am sure their views would be fascinating and insightful. I’d really just like to enjoy their wit and sense of humor. The public tends to think especially of my grandfather Schoenberg as a stern lawgiver, sort of like the depiction of Moses in the Bible, but within our family he isn’t remembered that way at all. Probably Moses wasn’t so strict all the time, either. I’d like to get to know my famous grandfathers, not as famous people, but just as grandfathers. 


Naama Haviv, Director of Development and Community Relations, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
I’d love to share my sukkah with Leibel Fein (z”l), intellectual, journalist, activist, co-founder and editor of Moment magazine, and founder of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. I wonder especially what he would say about our place in the world as Jews now, in today’s ever more hyperpartisan atmosphere. When he founded MAZON, hunger was a safe, nonpartisan issue that everyone could get behind without political rancor. If stories from our staff and board who knew him are correct, he’d probe the question with immense curiosity and thoughtfulness, and with his trademark razor-sharp wit and charm. And we’d all be better people, better advocates and better Jews for it. 


Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Director, Miller Intro to Judaism Program, American Jewish University
Moses. OK, so that might seem like the most painfully “rabbi-ish” answer ever, but bear with me. The Talmud tells the story of Moses traveling through time to sit in Rabbi Akiva’s (50-135 C.E.) study hall. Moses can’t follow the discussions and begins to despair that he no longer recognizes those who are supposed to be his spiritual heirs. Finally, a student asks a question to which Rabbi Akiva responds, “Well, that is Torah that we received from Moses, our teacher,” and Moses’ mind was set at ease. If Moses was confused by the Judaism that followed him by just a thousand years, it’s hard to imagine what he would make of ours. Yet I wonder if he could come and sit with us in the sukkah, what would he recognize, and even knowing that so much would be profoundly unfamiliar, would we make him proud?


Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas, Valley Beth Shalom
There are so many people I’d like to invite, but if I’d have to choose one, I’d probably choose President Abraham Lincoln. I’d Iike to sit with the ol’ rail splitter and ask him to reflect on how we can bridge a very divided country today. I’d love for him to guide us to recover our civic virtue and help us find those “better angels of our nature.”  


Jay Sanderson, President and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
I would invite those who personify the leadership skills we sorely need today. My guests would be Moses (resilience), Mahatma Gandhi (sacrifice), David Ben-Gurion (determination), Martin Luther King Jr. (vision), Anne Frank (optimism), Abraham Lincoln (persistence) and Lillian Wald (idealism).


“Moses. I wonder what would he recognize, and even knowing that so much would be profoundly unfamiliar, would we make him proud?”
— Rabbi Adam Greenwald


Mayim Bialik, actress, writer, founder of GrokNation
I’m kind of wanting to invite whoever wrote that NY Times op-ed just because I’ve got so many questions, but I would invite Sacha Baron Cohen. His “Who Is America?” has blown my mind. 


Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Co-founder of Jewish World Watch, Chair of Beit T’Shuvah and of Jews United for Democracy and Justice
I would like to invite both Maimonides (Rambam) and Nechama Leibowitz into our sukkah on the same night. I have always seen Maimonides as one of the smartest, most open-minded and perhaps most influential Jewish thinkers of all time. His teachings on all aspects of Jewish thought, including the role of women in Judaism, permeate rabbinic education and Jewish learning. It surprised me that Maimonides, a progressive figure for his time, expressed the belief that women are biologically inferior to men and that a man ought not teach his daughter Torah. 

When Maimonides meets Nechama Leibowitz in our sukkah, he will certainly see that there is no biological inferiority and that there is great benefit to teaching one’s daughter Torah. Nechama Leibowitz, who died at 92 in 1997, is widely viewed as one of the most influential teachers of Torah of her generation. My family and I would enthusiastically welcome Rambam and Leibowitz and would relish being witness to their conversation, but since ushpizin is an idea that requires a certain degree of magical thinking, I would hope that, after experiencing Nechama Leibowitz and her brilliant Torah, Maimonides would go back and do a few corrections in his teachings and analysis and become an active advocate in favor of an inclusive role for women in all aspects of Judaism, thereby letting the women of the last millennium use their advocacy talents and energies to fight other battles. 


Annie Korzen, actress/humorist
I am a secular Jew, but I happily celebrate the holidays when someone invites me. I enjoy being in a room full of Jews, plus I never refuse free food. If I were hosting in a sukkah, my guest list would include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela and, to add a touch of levity, Mel Brooks. Sounds like a fun group to me.