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

Venezuela Jews unveil new main Sephardic synagogue

The Jewish community of Caracas officially dedicated the Venezuelan city's new main Sephardic synagogue, Tiferet Israel Este.

Hundreds gathered Sunday at the multimillion-dollar synagogue in the Las Palos Grandes neighborhood for the ceremony led by Isaac Cohen, the chief rabbi of the local Sephardic community.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” Cohen told JTA last week. “[The new synagogue] shows that people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.”

Tiferet Israel Este offers an alternative to Tiferet Israel, the old main Sephardic synagogue located in a now dangerous part of town where few Jews remain. In 2009, armed vandals attacked Tiferet Israel, desecrating Torah scrolls and scrawling anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls.

The unveiling of the synagogue was postponed by a week due to the death of Hugo Chavez, the country's longtime president.

About 9,000 Jews live in Venezuela, down from 25,000 in the mid-1990s.

Kohelet 5766

On the holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon. The following “updated” version of Kohelet is written by Judy Gruen, with major apologies to King Solomon.

“Futility of futilities,” Sarah Rivkah bas Leah Rochel said. “All is futile.”

What profit does a balabusta have for all her labor, which she toils in the supermarket and in the kitchen?

A table of guests comes and a table of guests goes, but Yom Tov endures almost forever. And the sun rises and the sun sets — then it is Yom Tov again. All the guests flow into the sukkah, yet the sukkah is not full until we invite the ushpizin (seven souls). (Could have fooled me; there is hardly room to put the soup.)

All meals become wearying; one becomes speechless, except for my youngest child, who won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise. Whatever has been cooked is what will be served, and whatever was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator will not be served. There are no new recipes beneath the sun (except at Susan’s house — she has more than 100 cookbooks, and even uses them). Sometimes there is a salad of which one says, “Look! This is new!” Yet it is simply arugula with mustard vinaigrette, and it has already existed in the ages before us.

I, a balabusta, am queen over my kitchen in Pico-Robertson, so why do I feel like a galley slave? I applied my mind and body to creatively prepare for two-dozen Yom Tov meals — it is a task that God has given to the daughters of Israel with which to be concerned. But I have seen all I want to see of the aisles of the kosher store this week, and behold, finding parking becomes a vexation of the spirit. A car twisted into taking two parking spots cannot be made to fit in one parking spot if you don’t have the keys; and what I will spend in the market cannot be numbered.

Then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that was all madness and folly, since the fly-catcher I had hung in the sukkah fell down and went splat on the ground and a great stink rose in the sukkah. This, too, was a vexation of the spirit and caused much grief, as she who even inadvertently creates a stink in the sukkah increases pain.

Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heavens:

A time to plan menus, and a time to shop.

A time to cook, and a time to set the table.

A time to put children in time out, and a time to heal.

A time to bake cakes and a time to eat.

A time to shop again, and a time to pray for parking.

A time to chop vegetables, and a time to borrow two onions from your neighbor.

A time to serve guests, and a time to clean up.

A time to feel exhausted … is a good time to stay silent.

I have observed that God put an enigma in our minds so that we cannot comprehend why He wants us to do so much cooking and serving. Thus I have perceived that I may as well rejoice and cook more meals before the next dozen guests sidle into the sukkah. Indeed most men and women who eat and drink will find satisfaction in all my labor — it is a gift from God (and since Yom Tov is not yet over I hope it is a gift that will keep on giving).

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, since I put it all on the Visa and the store merchant approved my credit. Take care lest you spill dark grape juice on my white tablecloth, or I may be tempted to anoint your head with oil.

The race to the bakery is indeed won by the swift and the grocery shopping achieved by the strong, and this is a good thing since weeks of Yom Tov will happen to us all. Like fish caught in a net, like birds seized in a snare, so are women caught in a moment of disaster when Yom Tov falls upon them suddenly. This, too, I have observed personally, and it affected me profoundly.

The balabusta seeks to rejoice under the “clouds of glory,” no matter how many three-day Yom Tovs there are, and feed her guests without comparing her menu to that of her neighbor, who has been baking since before Labor Day, since that would be a vexation of the spirit. Home-baked challah will also be digested in the same way as store-bought challah. After all, a feast is made for laughter and wine gladdens life, so let your heart cheer you in the days of Yom Tov, especially if you have not spent most of the previous month in the kitchen. Wear sensible shoes in the kitchen, for you will stand there for a long time.

The sum of the matter, when all is considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, and remember to stock up on Shabbas candles and extra canned goods that can quickly be made into a salad in case you leave a dish on the stove for too long. This is not a balabusta’s whole duty, but it sure is a big part of it during Yom Tov.

Judy Gruen is the mother of four kids and humor writer. Read more of her columns and order copies of her award-winning humor books on