L.A. Sukkot Confidential


Etrog Container. Augsburg. c.1670. Photo from”Jewish Art” 1995, courtesy of The Skirball

Cultural Center

During the last days of summer, Iconfess that our most focused family activity seems to be the annualpilgrimage to Target for new lunchboxes. All of that changes whenSeptember hits. From Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to Sukkot, thenShemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the month of Tishrei is to theJewish holiday cycle what the decathlon is to Track and Field Day.The kitchen table rapidly piles up with day school holiday projects– cardboard shofarot, handmade New Year’s cards, drawings of lulavim and the countlessapples, made from every conceivable non-toxic medium known toteachers.

For my children, the most beguiling holiday of the month is Sukkot– the mother of all craft projects. And I’m only too happy tooblige. Where I grew up, in the suburbs of the Upper Midwest, sukkahswere relatively few and far between. Our synagogue had one, ofcourse, as did its president, who happened to live next door. But byand large it was a thoroughly American-looking, booth-less landscape.The older West Side neighborhoods, where our city’s Orthodox Jewswere concentrated, undoubtedly presented a different picture. But we– steeped as we were in the zeitgeist of early ’70’s suburbia, wereas inclined to build moon rockets on our lawns as we were to erectfunky, portable holiday shelters. (The weather, of course, didn’thelp any.)

Several decades, thousands of miles and two children later, I find’90s Los Angeles a natural fit for the sensory delights and criticallessons of the Sukkot festival.

Along with the central biblical injunction to build sukkahs “[so]that your generations may know I made the children of Israel to dwellin booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” [Lev:23:43]), other, contemporary lessons apply, too.

The sukkah, as Maimonides wrote, serves as a way to remind therich of the poor who live in their midst. It also pries us loose –if only for a time –from our obsession with material things in acity where worship of the pricey, private home has reached culticproportions. “The sukka provides a corrective to the natural tendencyof becoming excessively attached to turf,” writes Irving Greenberg inThe Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. “It instructs Jews not to becomeoverly rooted, particularly not in the exile. . .”

Nike’s injunction to “just do it” may border on a civic religion,but the booths we erect on Sukkot remind us instead of our relianceon G-d to shelter and protect us. We live in the capital of adisposable pop culture that runs on breathless speed and anticipationof “the next big thing.” Sukkot offers an antidote, with rituals thatrecall an ancient era when our communal rhythms were determined byharvests and rainy seasons instead of the insistent bleat oftechnology. If L.A. is where people go to reinvent themselves, aplace where “everyone is from somewhere else,” Sukkot, on the otherhand, connects us to our biblical ancestors, whom we “invite” in assymbolic guests.

That’s what’s so appealing about this holiday: from an oddassemblage of fabric, plywood, palm fronds and quirky decorations wecan carve out from L.A.’s dizzy, free-form landscape a uniquelytimeless Jewish time and space.

(These days, friends and family tell me, more sukkahs arespringing up in the chilly suburbs where I grew up, too — perhapsevidence of the much vaunted rediscovery of Jewish tradition amongpeople my age. The climate, however, remains uncooperative. “Theproblem with Sukkot here,” one relative explains, “is that we’reeither sipping lukewarm soup with our parkas on, or we’re eating witha swarm of yellow jackets buzzing around our heads.”)

But here on the coast, the balmy weather is on our side, and onceYom Kippur is over, we plunge into the tactile adventure. Warm daysallow us to go barefoot as we trudge back and forth from the garage,lugging out boxes stuffed with decorative flourishes from Sukkahspast: plastic fruits and vegetables, strings of synthetic fallleaves, laminated drawings from school and other odds and ends sofaded from the elements we can’t tell what they once were.

Sukkah decorating is a matter of personal taste and inclination.Israelis and American Orthodox Jews seem to favor off-season tinseland strings of Christmas bulbs. Those put off by twinkly lights cango for an autumnal mood by using lit candles stuck in hollowed outvegetable gourds. Pumpkins are a good choice, provided one avoids thepagan urge to cut jack o’lantern features into that inviting expanseof orange.

Our sukkah happens to be very big on paper chains, which our7-year-old daughter churns out with businesslike efficiency. Lastyear, our son contributed a painting adorned with his own footprints.(A reference to our years of wandering in the desert after the Exodusfrom Egypt?) Now an older and wiser three-year-old, he is busycontemplating an entirely new artistic direction, which he describesmysteriously as “something with dinosaurs.”

During Sukkot, I get to indulge my own artsy-craftsy, if erraticMartha Stewart impulses. It’s also a great time to reciprocate recentdinner invitations, or to include people who have never eaten in asukkah before. (A few years ago, we extended a drop byinvitation to some Jewish neighbors who came over bearing anunexpected gift: pepperoni pizza.)

“Want to see our sukkah?” As the holiday approaches, my childrenask it of everyone in their sight line: aunts, classmates, thebabysitter, the UPS man. The truth is, I’m as jazzed as they areabout this Jewish space we recreate in our backyard each year,liberating us from the ponderously solid moorings of our house.

After the kids are asleep, I like to sit on our newly transformedpatio. Under the thatched roof, my daughter’s colored paper necklacessway slightly in the breeze. The air is warm. A helicopter thwackssomewhere overhead. It’s L.A. as usual, only different.