At Sukkot, turning oy into the season of joy


In open opposition to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which tells us on Sukkot “there is nothing new under the sun,” I decided to build a solar sukkah this fall. To energize my plan, I went to the 99 Cent Store to buy some solar yard lights to adapt for use on the roof.

However, while driving home and accessing the construction work required for the upcoming holiday, I realized that my sukkah was not the only thing that was low energy.

I had put up our sukkah umpteen years in a row, and this year I was thinking about giving the shack building a rest. The solar idea was nice, but in the end it wasn’t enough — just an artificial way of rekindling my interest in what had become an annual task.

Couldn’t we just manage an invite from a couple of the families we had invited into our sukkah in previous years?

Not an option: Among our friends there was a sukkah shortage. Over time, it seems, people get so used to visiting your sukkah that they lose touch with building their own.

Sukkot is supposed to be “the season of our joy,” but after the chest pounding, shofar blowing and pleading for my life, the joy this year was hard to find. Was there a way to reset my spiritual clock and get my sukkah built?

Psychology tells us that motivation comes in two forms: “intrinsic,” an internal desire to perform a particular task that gives us pleasure, like knowing that putting up a sukkah is a mitzvah, and “extrinsic,” factors external and unrelated to a particular task, but a kind of reward, like praise from friends for putting up a sukkah.

Searching for motivation, I read where a college rabbi at Duke had run a program called “Sex and the Sukkah.” It certainly piqued my interest (though I was confused as to whether the motivation was extrinsic or intrinsic). Apparently sex is part of the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. But we don’t even sleep out there, and my wife wondered nervously about the neighbors.

With our children in their 20s, the motivation of putting up the sukkah for them was missing, too. Balancing on a ladder in our shaky shack just so we could hang the decorations they made in school was no longer a starter.

Hanging signs of their more recent achievements — term papers, pay stubs and renderings (one of them is studying to be an architect) — was an interesting updating of the tradition, but I didn’t think the public display would be appreciated.

Since with each day the pile of weathered boards and rolls of bamboo seemed to be receding farther and farther into the depths of my garage, and wondering if others might be having a similar problem, I sat down to interview a psychologist.

“A lack of motivation and apathy could be a sign of depression,” said Rae Freed, a clinical social worker in private practice in Los Angeles who sees patients of all ages. Depression could show itself through “a lack of energy, fatigue, in difficulty in making a decision or lack of focus.”

As we talked about the social component of the sukkah — inviting over guests — Freed suggested that potential sukkah builders might think the effort requires “too much energy to participate in a social interaction.”

“That sounded about right,” I thought, thinking of the effort it took in past years to call people to negotiate the “right” night.

Freed also spoke about seasonal depression that comes with the shortening of days from a Jewish point of view.

“You build up to the High Holy Days, spending time with family, and afterwards feel the loss,” she said.

“Especially when they live on the other side of the county or have passed away,” I thought.

Over time, “age and strength” become factors as well, Freed said.

“Yeah, that too,” I thought, then asked, “How do you get over it?”

For Freed, simply pretending and putting on a “mask of joy” was not going to cover it. She countered my question with questions: “Ask yourself, how did you feel in the past when you did that? Was it positive?”

“Having guests over did make me feel good,” I thought.

Explaining further, Freed suggested that even if you don’t feel like doing something, it might be motivating to remember the pleasure the activity brought, especially the communal associations.

Recall the “memories of earlier Sukkots,” said Freed, who pleasantly recalled that she had spent her teen years living in an art deco hotel run by her father that catered to vacationing Jews in south Miami Beach, Fla.

I remembered having in several groups of people the previous year. It was kind of like running a sukkah hotel — tons of work, yet they sang, played instruments and filled our evenings with camaraderie.

“People feel alone and isolated if they are not surrounded by family,” Freed said, and suggesting the sukkah is a way of “bringing together a temporary family.”

“A temporary structure for a temporary family,” I thought.

Later, thinking over Freed’s words, my low energy thoughts dissipated. Going into the recesses of my garage, I found what it would take to build my sukkah.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

Once in a lifetime


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to here with once-in-a-lifetime events.

Katrina was once in a lifetime. The 2004 tsunami was once in a lifetime. This past year’s wildfires were the worst blazes in living memory. Every other month seems to bring an epic rain or snow that is said to be the storm of the century. And don’t get me started on the polar ice cap.

George W. Bush, the worst president in American history, will turn out to be, God willing, once in a lifetime, as will the officially sanctioned use of torture by American interrogators, the subjugation of the Justice Department by a bunch of right-wing 20-something hacks, and the grotesque intervention of Congress into the Terry Schiavo case. If Dick Cheney isn’t once in a lifetime, there is reason to doubt the existence of divine mercy.

The depth of the unfolding recession, for those who did not experience the Great Depression, is now forecast to be once in a lifetime. Bernie Madoff’s breathtaking Ponzi scheme is — one can only hope — once in a lifetime. The demise of Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, is once in a lifetime, as will be the extinction of Levitz, the 97-year-old furniture chain, and (as is plausible) of Dodge (b. 1914) and Kmart (b. 1962).

Until this recession, India and China were poised to overtake the U.S. economy, which would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime development, like the fall of communism, tobacco, butter, girdles and Esperanto.

The impending deaths of the print newspaper, the network evening news and the television networks themselves — like the prior deaths of the buggy, vaudeville and silent movies — are bound to be experienced as once in a lifetime. The demises of slide rules, typewriters, Polaroid instant cameras and VHS tapes each marked the end of an era. TV Guide is going the route of Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life; when either Time or Newsweek folds, its surviving competitor will doubtless send it off with a once-in-a-lifetime obit.

Sept. 11 was once in a lifetime, unless you lived through Pearl Harbor. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the malicious explosion of a nuclear device is not in the world’s foreseeable future, and if, keinahora, that happens, it will surely be labeled — optimistically — once in a lifetime.

On the upside, the election of a black American president is totally without precedent, and it is not inconceivable that a woman will eventually follow him to the White House, though if it’s Sarah Palin, she stands a decent chance of wresting worst-ever laurels from Bush.

My discomfort at being crowded by this surfeit of once-in-a-lifetime happenings is partly about hype, and mostly about mental hygiene.

The mainstream news media have no vested interest in proportionality. With so many things competing for our attention, the only way for media-owning corporations to capture our eyeballs is to inflate everything to Armageddon dimensions. Every lurid local crime becomes a national melodrama; every flare-up on the planet is depicted as a precursor to World War III; every scandal is Watergate, or something-else-gate. We are inundated with the Ten Worst This and Ten Best That, while long-simmering atrocities truly deserving of notice, like Darfur or the tuberculosis pandemic, barely make it onto the radar screen.

No wonder the world has the jitters. We are daily assaulted by so much hyperbole that it is nearly impossible to know what is important any more. It is undeniable that we live in a time of big change, but if we did not also live in a time of big media, I am not convinced that we would experience our lives as a relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, crises and catastrophes.

To every thing, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a season, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which know only one season, which is BREAKING NEWS. Real life has natural rhythms; it plays out on many stages, from the personal and private to the public and historical. But the culture of THIS JUST IN homogenizes those differences. Its imperative is to monetize our attention, and the easiest way to do that is to see as much as possible through once-in-a-lifetime lenses.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain of the economic meltdown, or the significance of climate change, or the symbolic breakthrough of the Obama inauguration or the dizzying transformations being wrought by technology. But it does no good for us as citizens if everything is as screamingly urgent as everything else, and it does no good for us as people if our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded by superlatives. How can our leaders set priorities, how will we ever agree on trade-offs, if public discourse only consists of capital letters? How can we linger in the intimacies and mysteries of existence, how will we truly know what’s worth caring about, if shock and rupture is the only language our culture knows how to speak?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.