July 18, 2019

Living in the Moment

Oren Rimmon, 18
High School: YULA Boys High School
College: University of Maryland

Oren Rimmon spent his high school career balancing school and work, prepping for ACT tests and rushing through college applications.

However, he also found time to captain the flag football and varsity baseball teams, and volunteer as division head at his local synagogue. Still, he said, he’s just a “regular kid in high school.” 

But Rimmon’s schoolmates, community and friends consider him to be a leader, and he takes that responsibility seriously. 

“Being a leader means that when [a person] identifies a problem, no matter what that problem is, they get up and they fix it. They try to solve it,” Rimmon told the Journal. “There’s a sense of pride because I felt I was really helping.” 

In return, the community was there for him during his junior year when he was injured in a car accident. Rimmon was delivering skakh for Sukkot when a car struck him as he was crossing the street, YULA Principal Rabbi Joseph Schreiber told the Journal. He suffered five broken bones and was in a wheelchair for six weeks.

“But one day I woke up and I decided that Judaism is such a core part of my life and I should get to know it as much as possible.” 

“I got through it with a lot of support from my school and my family and my community,” Rimmon said. “They gave us a lot of love and encouragement.”

He will spend a gap year at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Israel next year and then study at the University of Maryland. 

“I hope to grow spiritually and emotionally, and I hope that I can come out of Israel with a solid Jewish identity,” he said. “When I was younger, I kind of took it for granted. But one day I woke up and I decided that Judaism is such a core part of my life and I should get to know it as much as possible.” 

Rimmon said his actions and core values come from his parents, who taught him how to grow as a person. He hopes he can continue to help others and study aerospace engineering so he can potentially build spacecraft and airplanes, something he has wanted to do since a counselor “randomly mentioned it” at school.

Rimmon said it’s “so crazy” that his high school journey is coming to an end because it feels like it was just yesterday when he was in ninth grade. He hopes those still in school take the time to appreciate the experience. 

“When you’re in high school, you want it to go by as fast as possible,” he said. “By the time you’re a senior, you have three months left and you missed all of it. Step back and take a breath and live in the moment. Don’t try to rush through everything.”

Keep on reading about our 2019 Outstanding Seniors here.

A Prayer for Geshem is More Than Just Asking for Rain

Photo provided by National Park Service

On Shemini Atzeret, we not only celebrate the eighth day following Sukkot, and remember our loved ones during yahrzeit, we also pray for rain. Rain— for those who have not seen it in months or even years— is water that falls from the sky in copious amounts. It quenches our thirst, hydrates our agriculture and cools us off on sweltering hot days

Los Angeles and its residents might not be as familiar with the concept of rain, but we are no strangers to the heatwaves that hit us daily. After experiencing (and surviving) my first summer living in the valley, I wondered how anyone could bear to live like this. I’d like to thank my A/C for being there in my time of need.

The dry, intense heat was nice to my frizzy curls, but not kind to my demeanor. I found myself more agitated by my friends; short-tempered to random strangers and even snapped at those I loved. I wondered where my bubbly midwestern personality went. Then it dawned on me: I was angry because I was hot and hadn’t seen or felt a cool rain in months.

Brian Lickel, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, once said that when people are hot they tend to get cranky.

“It makes people more prone to anger,” he said. “It makes people more frustrated, and it makes decision making more impulsive. And that can lead to altercations that escalate to more extreme levels of aggression.”

Though it seems obvious, when temperatures climb, and rain is nowhere in sight, we tend to become “hot-headed.” Rain, or lack of it, has an impact on us.

My heat-driven anger made me think of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing.” It’s set during one of the hottest days of the year where heat is used to turn the anger up to an ultimate high. Fights break out, gunshots are fired and chaos fills the screen, all because social tensions were met with rising temperatures. Lee isn’t the first person to use this cinematic trope but he did make a lasting impression with it.

Heated arguments can not only turn ugly faster but stay with a person forever.

It’s why this holiday aligns so nicely with the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to start fresh with a clean slate, help us forgive and ask for forgiveness. Sukkot lets us enjoy the harvest and the outdoors by gathering with family and friends.

Shemini Atzeret lets us pray for the rain that will tend to the earth and help us when we will need the most: spiritually and literally.

Growing up, my Bubbie always told me that we needed the rain whenever we got it.

“Look, it’s feeding the plants, it makes them feel good,” she would say while offering me another piece of Mandel bread.

She loves the rain because it floods (no pun intended) her home with color. I think she liked the rain because it gave her a break from watering her large and beautiful backyard garden.  

Rain is able to cool us off so we can think more clearly.  It’s a wet, heavy blanket that falls and hits us right on the head to make us work through our current emotions.

It can nourish us while lending the strength to move forward in the new year.

We ask God for rain where rain is not seen. Rain isn’t seen where there is tension. Rain is not always seen on the days we forget our 5779 resolutions.

This year we will be angry, hurt and want to hold a grudge. It’s unavoidable because we’re imperfect human beings.

It’s why we need to listen to my Bubbie and enjoy the rain when it comes — and pray for more of it everywhere.

Of course, here in Los Angeles, we might only get an inch of rain while many around the world will get hit with disastrous amounts. This year while asking for raindrops, we should let Shemini Atzeret remind us to cool off when we get too hot.

When we feel like yelling, causing a scene, or about to do things we will regret, take a deep breath. Stay present. Imagine a cold front with rain clouds sweeping in to bring our inner temperature down, granting us to resolve the conflict.   

On Monday when many go to shul they will say or hear a prayer for geshem (rain in Hebrew). The importance of this prayer is not just to rejuvenate the world, it’s to symbolically rejuvenate us.

Erin Ben-Moche is a Los Angeles journalist and the digital content manager at The Jewish Journal.


Rosner’s Torah Talk: Sukkot’s Shabbat with Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has served as a rabbi at Mount Zion since 1997. When he and Cantor Spilker came to the congregation, he led adult and family education and youth activities for four years.  In 2001, he was selected as senior rabbi.  Rabbi Spilker graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in Religious Studies from Duke University in 1991 and was ordained as a rabbi with a Masters of Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City in 1997.  He and Cantor Spilker have three children.

In the Shabbat of Sukkot we read how Moses requests to be shown G‑d’s glory. G‑d tells Moses to carve new tablets for the Ten Commandments. G‑d seals a covenant with Moses. He instructs the people to destroy all vestiges of idolatry from the land.The Jews are commanded to observe the three festivals — including Sukkot, “the festival of the ingathering, at the turn of the year.” The maftir, from the Book of Numbers, discusses the public offerings brought in the Temple on this day of Sukkot.




Letters to the Editor: Sukkot Invitation, People With Special Needs and Ford Versus Kavanaugh

Sukkot Invitation
Concerning who I’d invite to Sukkot: hands down my maternal grandparents (“Ushpizin: Who Would You Invite Into Your Sukkah?” Sept. 21). My grandfather died when I was 7, so I never knew him well; I want that remedied. My grandmother died when I was 21, so I knew her much better, and in addition to seeing and talking with her, I want her homemade chopped liver again.
Stephen Meyers, Woodland Hills

Editorial Cartoon
The liberal bias of most alternative and mainstream publications, including the Journal, extends to editorial cartoons.

For example, the Sept. 21 cartoon by Steve Greenberg depicts a dutiful Gov. Jerry Brown at his desk, decked with an inbox filled with “Climate Change Action” and an outbox, occupied by a scowling President Donald Trump.

The outbox should have been stamped “Immigration and Population” — the engines that drive every economic, environmental and social problem in a sanctuary state that is predicted to have 65 million people by the year 2050.
Les Hammer, via email

People With Special Needs
Michelle K. Wolf wrote about a 72-year-old man named Steven who needed help from Jewish Family Service (“People With Special Needs Also Need Trusts,” Sept. 14). She stated that Supplemental Security Income rules prohibit single beneficiaries from having more than $2,000 in assets. That is true. As a 72-year-old, he would be collecting Social Security, either from his work record or his parents’ record. And he would be covered by Medicare. Medi-Cal would be paying the premiums. And if you collect Social Security, there is no limit to assets with Medi-Cal. Social Security pays more than Medi-Cal. Yes, it is impossible to live on the small amount of money disability insurance pays. The Jewish Los Angeles Trust is most necessary.
Barbara Polisky, Westlake Village

Why Jews Succeed
Writer Henry Ong speculates on why Jews are successful out of proportion to our numbers (“Finance Lessons for the Whole World,” Sept. 21). He concludes that Jews have had to prove their worth despite millennia of persecution.  I think he omits another reason, perhaps two.

Christians have historically valued celibacy and have therefore selected smart, young men for the priesthood, taking them out of the gene pool. By contrast, Jews have valued scholars of the Torah who became preferential marriage partners in villages and cities throughout Jewish Europe.

In ancient times, everyone valued tall, fierce warriors with long arms for hand-to-hand combat. Even the Hebrews did so, as told in the David-and-Goliath story. A disciplined army carrying swords and shields (e.g., Roman legions) would defeat an army armed with projectiles (Agincourt being an exception). After Jews lost title to their lands, they no longer selected big warriors. Modern Israel, as do most technological countries, fights  wars with smart men and women.

Another reason Ong did not cite is that Judaism emphasizes action to improve the world while most other religions have elaborate doctrines to be learned by adherents.
Myron Kayton, via email

Israel Benefits From Republican Leaders
David Suissa is supposed to be a conservative voice for the Journal, yet his holiday message was dripping with anti-Donald Trump hatred, spreading the “resistance” message of prominent left-wing rabbis and adding his own “march on Washington” comments (“Speaking Truth to Power — Ours,” Sept. 21). As the old year wraps up, we are grateful for a pro-Israel president, who opened the American Embassy in Jerusalem; a president who is giving Iranians sanctions instead of planeloads of cash; a president who has an Orthodox-Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren; a Republican-majority Congress that blesses Israel and funds Israeli military; and an administration that defunds the PLO so it can’t use our money to pay terrorists’ families. My heart breaks that Suissa and his ilk can’t see the blessings that are right in front of his eyes for this country and for Israel.
Marsha Roseman, Van Nuys

Love the new Jewish Journal, developed under the wise and creative guidance of Editor-in-Chief David Suissa. As a now-devoted subscriber, I always look forward to reading Suissa’s engaging “Editor’s Notes,” which are so elegantly written and so filled with warmth, compassion, understanding and welcome truths. Thank you for this exceptional publication.
Susan Ehrlich, via email

Regarding “SJP to Host Anti-Zionist Event at UCLA” (Sept. 14), when the speakers preach Jew-hatred and Holocaust-denial as expected, college administrators probably won’t interfere, since criticism of Islam is forbidden on the left, while demonization of Israel is common.
Rueben Gordon, via email  

Stabbing Death of Ari Fuld
The Palestinian AARP is not like our AARP (“Remembering the ‘Lion of Zion,’” Sept. 21). It’s an abbreviation for Arab Assassins Retirement Plan.

Under this plan, if you murder a Jew, any Jew, and you are killed in the process, your family members are compensated for the rest of their lives for having done the world the favor of giving birth to a child who rid the planet of an undesirable person.

If the murderer doesn’t die in the attack but is imprisoned for life, then a lifetime monthly pension is paid. The killer’s family gets the money anyway because it can’t be spent in prison. The latest beneficiary of this ghoulish system will be the suspected killer of Ari Fuld (z”l).

It doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the generosity of many governments, including ours, this blood money costs the Arab Palestinians nothing because it comes from donations by others.

The educational system that feeds hate to Arab-Palestinian youth, and of course parental support, gives wings to this system. And thanks to the gullibility of millions, and an unhealthy dose of anti-Semitic sentiment around the world, the funding of the Palestinian “AARP” seems destined to continue unless Donald Trump stays in the White House. How awkward.
Desmond Tuck, via email

Ford Versus Kavanaugh
In the ongoing battle of professor Christine Blasey Ford versus Judge Brett Kavanaugh, one seems to be faced with the challenging decision on which “conspiracy” to believe.
To liberals/Democrats on the left, the saga of Kavanaugh is “obviously“ a conspiracy by old, Republican, white men to fail to protect women from sexual predators and thoroughly investigate such charges.

To conservatives/Republicans on the right, this is an obvious “ploy” by anti-Donald Trump operatives, and the “usual suspects” (leftist/activist citizens and lawyers) to drag up some obscure “accusation” of 30-plus years ago, and try desperately to give it some authenticity; hence, railroading or at least delaying installing a new judge until after the midterm elections.
Pick your poison?
Rick Solomon, Lake Balboa

Don’t be shy. Send your letters to letters@jewishjournal.com

‘The Leftovers’ and God’s Cosmic Hug

The month of Tishrei had always been a riddle to me until I saw HBO’s television series “The Leftovers.” 

In the heart-racing opening scene of the pilot episode, two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears in a rapture-like event called “The Departure.” The show then immediately jumps ahead to the three-year anniversary of The Departure and exquisitely explores the struggles of those left behind after The Departure.

Their core struggle can be distilled into the following: “Are you OK?” “I am OK.”
“It is going to be OK.” “You are going to be OK.” Everyone is broken by The Departure and feels a profound sadness that threatens to destroy them. There is no escape from this sadness. There is only trying to “be OK” with it. 

This is the soul of “The Leftovers.” It is also the soul of real life.

Societies are built on the faith of tomorrow. Without faith that today’s work will pay off in the future, work becomes an overwhelming burden. People are driven by the need to feel they are going to be OK. We dress up our opinions with fancy arguments and airtight logic, but in the end we choose the option that makes us feel safest.

“Societies are built on the faith of tomorrow. Without that, the work becomes an overwhelming burden.”

Pro-gun rights activists believe they are safer with fewer restrictions on gun ownership. For gun-control activists, the reverse is true. The racist is motivated by the (false) conviction that safety can be found only by living with his or her own race. The pro-diversity progressive is motivated by the conviction that we are safer when all people are treated as equal.

“The Leftovers” distills this idea by raising the stakes. Someone who feels safe now would have a much harder time feeling so if 140 million people suddenly disappeared.

Only one thing in “The Leftovers” can unburden others from their debilitating anguish: a hug. Holy Wayne, a cult leader and pedophile, exorcises the demons of ambiguous loss with a genuinely compassionate hug, as if to say, “I feel your pain, I share in your pain and I am here to help carry your pain. I cannot tell you everything is going to be OK, but you are not alone.” 

Like everything in “The Leftovers,” it is unclear if the hugs are magical or a placebo. Regardless, they work.

The month of Tishrei begins with the High Holy Days funneling Jews into their synagogues for long days of prayer and introspection. I call Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur indoor holidays. A few days later, Sukkot flings us outdoors. For one week, there is a mitzvah to eat, drink and sleep — to live — in a flimsy hut. Sukkot is an outdoor holiday.

The two halves of Tishrei are also a contradiction of emotions. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are somber days as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Who will live? Who will die? Then, a few days later, Sukkot flips the mood completely. The Bible calls Sukkot “The Festival of Joy.”

How do such opposing pieces fit together in one single month?

Praying for our lives as we stand in judgment can leave us with a lingering sense of dread and fear. The melodies are haunting, the liturgy is dark and apocalyptic. Worst of all, our verdict is sealed in the Book of Life but we have no idea if we are written in it. We try to have faith that the coming year will be a good one but we do not know if we will be OK. The existential ambiguity can be paralyzing.

A few days later, when we enter the sukkah, we are surrounded by mitzvah, enveloped by its makeshift walls and meager thatched roof. The sukkah is God’s cosmic hug. God is not going to tell us we are going to be OK, but God’s hug has the power to unburden us.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Why the Holiday of Sukkot Offers a Reminder for Genetic Screening

With the yearly Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot underway (September 23-30), many in the Jewish community have focused their efforts on building a sukkah , a  dwelling, often in one’s backyard, that essentially serves as places to eat and—for people who choose—to sleep.

While sukkahs (this word is the common English pluralization) differ from home to home, all of them are meant to be welcoming places to gather, to converse, and to celebrate. And, as with many Jewish holidays, celebrating with family is a big part of Sukkot, too. Parents and children often build and decorate their sukkahs together in a fun and shared experience.

So, as we think about the connection from one generation to the next, and the concept of building a home, we are struck by the connection this has to our work helping young couples create families. Not just on Sukkot, but every day of the year, we promote and offer genetic screening, and follow-up counseling, to empower people with knowledge before they have children.

While genetic screening and genetic diseases are difficult topics for some to discuss, these conversations with the follow-through of screening are paramount.

“If a couple knows their carrier status prior to pregnancy, they have ample time to seek genetic counseling, gain information about the disease(s) that they carry, and make family planning decisions that will best suit them,” said Shari Ungerleider, whose son, Evan, tragically died of Tay-Sachs disease.

Within months of his seemingly healthy birth in 1994, Shari and Jeff Ungerleider became concerned as they realized that Evan was not developing at the same pace as other children his age. By the time he was 10 months old, it was clear there was a significant problem. Evan’s condition quickly progressed, and he was soon unable to move on his own, suffered multiple seizures daily, and had respiratory difficulty which required the Ungerleiders to provide chest physical therapy and to suction him regularly. He eventually became blind and deaf. They had a feeding tube surgically inserted so that Evan would be able to stay properly nourished and medicated. He had to undergo several hours a week of physical and occupational therapy so that his muscles would not atrophy. Evan lost his battle with Tay-Sachs when he was almost 4 ½ years old.

The Ungerleiders have shown great courage in continuing to speak out about their experience in the hopes that it will help families learn the important steps they can take towards starting a healthy family. Particularly timely during September—which is also Tay-Sachs Awareness Month—the Ungerleiders and JScreen, a not-for-profit community-based public health initiative, are working to teach anyone who is planning to start a family, whether tomorrow or years from now, that simple, easy genetic testing can help save them from the heartbreak of these often preventable diseases.  

Currently, 80 percent of babies with genetic diseases are born to parents with no known family history of that disease.

JScreen’s expanded screening panel tests for more than 200 diseases, a significant development from a generation ago.  

In July 2008, the United States Senate voted unanimously to name September National Tay-Sachs Awareness Month in an effort to bring additional attention to this deadly disease.  When both parents are Tay Sachs carriers, each child has a 25% of having the disease. While the incidence of babies born with Tay-Sachs has fallen dramatically due to genetic screening, affected babies are still being born to carrier couples who have not been tested.

A simple, at-home spit test can help families avoid the heartbreak of this – and other – devastating genetic diseases, and can provide essential information to help prospective parents make decisions about the future of their family. If a couple is found to be at high risk, JScreen provides invaluable genetic counseling to help them navigate their options for the future.”

It is therefore fitting that the celebration of Sukkot falls during Tay-Sachs Awareness Month. By focusing on issues that matter the most, like family, and building dwellings—like a home— Sukkot helps remind us that there are many steps that can be taken to start a healthy family and to build a happy home.  

For more information on genetic testing, and to see videos on how easy it is to take the test, visit https://jscreen.org/

Karen Grinzaid is an instructor, program director and genetic counselor at Emory University in the Department of Human Genetics. She is director for JScreen, a national online Jewish genetic disease screening program based out of the Department of Human Genetics.

Our Harvest (Sukkot)

Autumn Fall rustic background on aqua blue vintage distressed wood with autumn leaves and decorations.

When I am held in your arms

it is like a sukkah

somehow eternal

even though it is temporary

and it has just enough

structure for us to dance and sing

and celebrate

Our harvest.

Paper Plate Fruit Slice Garlands for the Sukkah

I have to confess that when it comes to decorating the sukkah, I like to hang large garlands. They make a much bigger impact than a bunch of smaller ones. And from a practical standpoint, they take up more room so you don’t have to make as many.

These big, bold fruit slice garlands are super easy to create with paper plates and paint, and their bright colors just add to the joy of Sukkot. Multiple strands would look festive hanging across the roof or along the walls. I’m showing how to make both citrus fruit and apple slices. You can do one or the other, or combine them like I have. It’s the perfect sukkah décor — any way you slice it.

What you’ll need:
Colored paper plates (orange, yellow, green and red)
White acrylic paint
Black acrylic paint

1. For citrus fruit slices, select yellow, orange or green paper plates. I used the small seven-inch size, but for a jumbo-sized garland, the 10 1/2-inch size will also work. Start by painting a half-inch wide white circle on the plate, about an inch from the outside edge.

2. Paint three straight lines — similar to spokes — that are evenly spaced and intersect in the middle. You will now have six triangular fruit “wedges.” Round out the corners of the triangles with white paint, and allow to dry.

3. To make the apple slices, start with a red paper plate. Paint the inside of the plate white, leaving a one-inch strip of red around the circumference. You may need several coats of white paint to get complete coverage over the red.

4. Along the center of the apple, paint small black teardrop shapes for the seeds. Imagine where the core of the apple would be, and paint the seeds on both sides of the core. Allow the paint to dry.

5. Fold the paper plate in half. For the citrus fruit slices, there should be three triangular wedges on either side of the fold. For the apple slices, the seeds should be located just under the fold.

6. Cut a piece of string to your desired length. Wrap each folded plate around the string, nestling the string along the fold. Glue the two sides of the paper plate together to form the fruit slice and lock in the string.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects here.

Ronnie the Sukkah-Man is here for you this Sukkot

Ronnie Sieger’s model sukkah in the backyard of his home shows customers what their sukkah will look like when they are finished building it. Photo by Ryan Torok

Sukkahs are governed by laws of halachah. They need to cast more shade than they allow in sunlight. Walls that move in the wind are not kosher. However, there are many ways of building the booths, which commemorate the experience of the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert after their exodus from Egypt. 

The roof covering, known as schach, is one part with which people have options. Some choose the natural look, using fronds cut from palm trees. Others want material that will not turn brown over time and that they can reuse year-to-year, such as bamboo mats. 

Whatever a person’s concept, Ronnie Sieger likely has what they need. He’s been selling sukkahs and sukkah parts out of his home for nearly 25 years.

Sieger, 54, sells everything to build a sukkah, including tarps, metal buttonhole poles, snap-button connectors, bungee cords, bamboo schach, sukkah storage bags and all-purpose sukkah kits.

His business was borne out of his struggle to find a sukkah that would fit perfectly into his own outdoor space. By finding the parts on his own, he realized he could create a custom sukkah that was both the right fit and price. He called it the “Sieger Sukkah.”

Ronnie Sieger the Sukkah Man. Photo by Ryan Torok

“The sukkah work, it’s something I take pride in. It’s something I’ve done a long time. It has my name on it,” Sieger said. “When I mention my name, they go, ‘Oh, you’re the sukkah man.’ It’s fun when people come in. And I am happy to help provide it and do the mitzvah.”

The sukkah business provides supplementary income for Sieger, who works full-time as a sofer (Torah scribe). His office-cum-workshop in the back of his garage is filled with Torah scrolls, atzei chaim (wooden Torah rollers) and tefillin, all in the process of repair. He also has tallitot for sale.

After purchasing a tarp last week from Sieger for $25, Joe Lipner tried on a tallit, but the B’nai David-Judea congregant decided to come back another time for the prayer shawl.

“I’m going to hold off because today my head is in Sukkot,” Lipner said.

This year, Sieger picked up a few more customers following an announcement by Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, a religious Zionist youth movement, that it would not be selling palm fronds this year.

“As our suppliers become more remote, the logistics of harvesting, transporting and delivering palm fronds within a short time frame and just before the holiday of Sukkot is an overwhelmingly complicated juggling act,” the organization announced in late August. 

“The sukkah work, it’s something I take pride in. When I mention my name, they go, ‘Oh, you’re the sukkah man.’ It’s fun when people come in. And I am happy to help provide it and do the mitzvah.” — Ronnie Sieger

Avi Matanky, director of Bnei Akiva’s Moshava Alevy summer camp told the Journal: “One of the reasons we felt comfortable [with our decision] is we know there are other people who supply schach, including people who supply bamboo mats. We know there are other options out there for people.”

Enter Sieger, who since 1997 has sold more than 5,000 sukkahs. The Sunday before Yom Kippur was his busiest day of the season and he expected sales to continue right up until Sukkot. 

“It’s a very stressful business because everyone orders at the last minute. So that can be difficult,” he said. “But at the same time, I am happy I can help people have sukkahs in their yards.”

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.

A Holiday Cake That Brings the Love and Saves You Time

By the time sukkot rolls around, many home cooks may be feeling burned out from the constant stream of preparations they have been making for large family dinners and gatherings from Rosh Hashanah through the break-the-fast meal after Yom Kippur.

Even though I’m a chef and caterer, I also feel pressure when I host special meals. In many respects, I feel that expectations for a meal at my house are higher than they would be at the home of someone who isn’t a professional chef. Also, isn’t this the time of year when we ask ourselves hard questions and meditate on the past and the future? Thinking about what we need to do differently and what habits and thoughts aren’t serving us anymore is hard work. 

It’s so important to recharge yourself because you’re not very useful to anyone else if you’re exhausted and running on empty. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cook that special fish dish or kugel that’s traditional in your household, but do you have to cram one side of the table to the other with specialty foods over the holidays? 

I say no. Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking. They love your company, your hugs, your kisses, your humor and your caring face. All the therapy in the world won’t help you hold on to your relationships if you take for granted your primary sources of joy and happiness. Imagine if everyone concentrated on themselves and their loved ones. Then imagine what a better place emotionally and spiritually your environment would be if people took care of themselves, felt special, and even pampered themselves a little.

When facing challenging and busy times, less is more. Keeping things simple and easy can help you find moments of calm and sanity. Rather than taking on more, even if your family relies on you to execute the holiday menus, it’s important to take a breath and think about your well-being. It’s one thing to want to please everyone in your life; it’s another to be so stressed that you forget yourself completely. 

If you are hosting people for Sukkot, make only dishes that are simple and enjoyable for you. If your specialty is complicated and time-consuming and you are overwhelmed — stop! Readjust your plans. Ask guests to bring a dish or buy prepared cuisine.

There is no shame in saying no, either. Don’t be the person whom everyone counts on for holidays if you feel crushed by the burden of cooking. Trust that the people who love you would rather have you vital and happy and dancing around your kitchen than to eat the most delicious thing you could possibly offer them. 

“Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking.”

While I’m not suggesting that you forget about everything that makes the holiday feel special to you, I am giving you permission to do less. Take a page out of the French playbook and make a simple dessert or, better yet, buy one.

According to baker extraordinaire Dorie Greenspan, who lives part of the year in Paris, the French don’t bake at home much. This makes sense because why would you try to compete with the amazing patisseries on every corner? But when they do, most everyone has a yogurt cake in their arsenal.

I’ve been making this one for years, not knowing that it’s a French staple. It’s easy enough that even after I’ve been at work and on my feet baking fancy pies and tarts for days on end, I can still manage this cake. I’ll call it my “charity begins at home” cake because it’s barely baking at all and every ingredient is probably already in your pantry. It’s also such a winning cake for a casual holiday table because it’s rather plain and will remind you of days gone by when Entenmann’s and Sara Lee were the only choices instead of the 4,000 brands available in stores today. It also has a homey, endearing split on top when it comes out of the oven. 

This recipe is adapted from Greenspan’s. I use one of her tricks when making this loaf that will make you happy (see recipe). I’m going to pass down the secret with a wish that you serve this under your sukkah this year. You can dress it up and make it fancier by cubing it trifle-style and layering it with berries or coconut whipped cream, but honestly, no one will complain if you serve it as is.

I make the cake in two small loaf pans, but you can make it in one standard 9-by-4-inch pan. It also freezes well, so you can double the recipe to have a spare on hand for when people drop by for coffee or tea. It comes out like a light pound cake with a slightly orange flavor and a comforting, cakey crumb.

Here’s to being more generous with your time this Sukkot — time for yourself. 


Rind of 2 clementines (use lemon or orange if you wish)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup plain yogurt (or vanilla-flavored or Greek yogurt)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil
2 tablespoons raspberry jam (optional)
2 tablespoons honey, warmed

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Greenspan’s trick: Take the rind of both clementines and rub into the sugar with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the citrus scent hits your nostrils. Rubbing releases the oils in the rind and makes the cake zing with flavor. 

In the same bowl, add the yogurt and mix well. Add the eggs and vanilla and whisk until smooth.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and add them to the egg/yogurt mixture in batches, or until you no longer see flour. Then, switch to a spatula and fold in the oil until the batter is smooth and shiny.

Pour into your loaf pan and spoon jam (if using) onto the batter using a knife to disperse the jam and create some swirls.  Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry or with just a few crumbs.

Glaze the cake with warm honey after it comes out of the oven for that nice holiday touch.

Cool for 30 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or cold. Store in refrigerator in a sealed container.  

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. 

Living in the Joy of Sukkot

One of my closest friends from childhood, who is of Russian descent, was recently at my 3-year-old daughter’s birthday party here in Los Angeles. After the party, as my wife and I collapsed on the couch, exhausted, he looked at me quizzically and said, “You know, the one thing that really weirds me out is how you Americans constantly make your kids smile for every picture like they’re some mannequin in a store.”

I cracked up and agreed. It does, indeed, seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon. It got me thinking: Why do we do that to our kids? I then started to wonder about the history of happiness and what this all meant for me going into the Jewish holiday season — and in particular, Sukkot. 

Americans’ obsession with happiness is often associated with the phrase written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that says all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Lberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This concept of the pursuit of happiness, which historians believe Jefferson acquired directly or indirectly from the writings of philosopher John Locke, was considered the foundation for maintaining one’s liberty, in that it enabled the individual to perceive and seek the greater good and resist enslavement to the desires and determinations of another — even if, in so doing, the individual needed to sacrifice their immediate personal desires. Alas, that rather complicated concept has largely been overtaken by the notion that we have the God-given right to find happiness in our selfish drive for personal satisfaction, often through materialistic endeavors.

One might see that misperception of happiness becoming the norm through such things as the creation of America’s ubiquitous “Happy Birthday” song in 1926, McDonald’s marketing of the Happy Meal in 1977, and The Walt Disney Co.’s former mission statement, “Make people happy” — along with, of course, the company’s labeling Disneyland “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Why are Americans so obsessed with happiness? And why is happiness so elusive? Even more pressing, what if this pursuit of happiness is misguided and the real treasure is not happiness but joy? 

Joy, a Jewish Conception of Happiness

Although the value of happiness is ingrained in the American psyche, it is not an inherent, fixed part of the human experience. I would argue that it requires construction like any other trait. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, recently wrote about the mistake of telling students to “follow their passions.” Passions are not found, they are developed and worked on, she wrote. Only through a process of investment and development do we develop passions. And the same goes for happiness, which, to be sustained, requires development and cultivation.  

“If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot is the ultimate expression of the joyful life.

If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot, or “tabernacles,” is the ultimate expression of the joyful life. 

To the unacquainted, the holiday of Sukkot seems anachronistic at best. It’s no wonder that in the various studies of American Jewish observance — from the Pew Research Center to Gallup — the surveyors typically want to know how many Jews light Hannukah candles, sit around a seder table for Passover or attend High Holy Days services, but they don’t ask about Sukkot. Observance of the holiday seems to have fallen into oblivion for most Jewish Americans. 

This is ironic because in the days of antiquity, Sukkot was the most significant holiday — mentioned more times in the Bible and involving more animal sacrifices than the other holidays. The Bible even refers to Sukkot as hag (holiday) with no qualifier. And, Jews are enjoined three times to “Be joyous on this holiday” — “Visamachta vichagecha.”

From a rabbinic perspective, Sukkot also stands out. Unlike during Passover, the full Hallel is recited each day of Sukkot. The Mishnah tells us that during the Second Temple period, a water libation ceremony was performed with water drawn from the Gihon spring outside Jerusalem and then brought to the temple, where it was poured on the altar. This ceremony on Sukkot, known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, was accompanied with music and dancing and so much joy that the Mishnah tells us that a person who had not experienced it had never experienced real joy. In Judaism, joy and Sukkot are synonymous. 

Sukkot may even predate the time of Moses. The Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal work written 130 years before the Common Era, notes that Abraham observed the holiday: “And Abraham built sukkot for himself and his servants in the seventh month, and he was the first to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in the Holy Land.” 

The Bible describes two compelling existential reasons for the mandate to sit in a rickety hut. Exodus refers to Sukkot as an agricultural “feast at the year’s end,” and as “chag haasif,” the festival of ingathering, during which, by leaving their homes and entering the transitory booths, Jews make a statement of gratitude, acknowledging that everything comes from God. Likewise, when the Jewish people are about to enter the land, when things are going well, Moses admonishes them to give credit to God, and not to say, “Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh,” or “It is through my strength and my might that I have accomplished all this.”

In Leviticus, when Sukkot is mentioned it is to remind us of the wandering we did in the desert and the total reliance we had on God. The wandering in the desert symbolizes the wandering we all do in life, and the sukkah represents the very transience of life. 

Whether from Exodus or Leviticus, it becomes clear that the cornerstone of the Sukkot experience is hakarat hatov — gratitude. This focus on gratitude may even have had an impact on the early pilgrims to America and the creation of Thanksgiving, also an autumnal holiday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, notes in regard to the Plymouth Rock pilgrims: “Now, they didn’t go out and build huts, obviously. But the notion that one would be thankful for a bountiful harvest was certainly one they would have learned from the Hebrew Bible.”

With such feelings of gratitude, it is no wonder that the liturgy refers to Sukkot as “Zman simchateinu” — the time of our joy. What is joy in Judaism? Maimonides, the great medieval legalist and philosopher wears both hats when he tells us that joy, simcha, is not merely eating good meat and drinking wine — what he calls “simchat kreiso,” the happiness of one’s gut. True joy, he argues, is when we feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor; and when we are with our children and spouses and make sure that others share in this experience as well. Thus, Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, explains that true happiness is “attained only when I forget about myself, when I lose myself, when my concern is with making others happy.”

Yet, we are constantly distracted. How possible is it to stay present? That’s where Sukkot comes in.

Every culture has its talking points. Live in Washington, D.C., and politics is the main conversation; live in Manhattan, and finance is often on peoples’ minds. After having lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade, I would say that what people talk about most here is the cost of real estate. I recently met a very successful lawyer who earns way more money than I will ever make, and he lamented that “Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve made good money, I look around me and see how much my peers make, and I say, ‘Aah, maybe I could have made more.’ ”

On Sukkot, this kind of conversation can stop — if not to end, at least to pause.

Ernest Becker, the Jewish-American anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Denial of Death,” pointed out that although all creatures end up dying, only we human beings know we are going to die; and because of that knowledge, we compensate with what Becker calls “affirmation systems.” We become workaholics; we become obsessed with problem-solving and fight — however we can, in the most impotent ways — against the fear of death. We pursue the misguided belief that if we only work harder, only show more effort, only succeed more, then we will achieve exultation, joy and happiness.

Our houses are the greatest illusions of all. They make us feel protected and secure, but the sukkah’s structure forces us to stop comparing and to start being. Four walls are not even necessary; 2 1/2 will suffice. A roof is no roof if we can’t see the stars and allow for some vulnerability. And, the sukkah is not a house; it is a shoddy suggestion of a house, and a reminder that our joy and security are not driven by what we put around us but what we put ourselves into. Vulnerability and authenticity are the currency of intimacy, what need to be exchanged to achieve closeness and connection.

Sukkot, then, is the holiday of vulnerability. Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence, which puts us on the path to a true feeling of joy.

The Magic of ‘Hygge’

In the most recent rankings of the World Happiness Report — in which America is ranked 18th and Israel 11th — the top-ranked countries all have high levels of income, freedom, trust, generosity and long life expectancy; but above all else, the currency of happiness in these countries is found in personal relationships. 

As has been widely reported, Denmark is always in the top five of these rankings. Some of its citizens’ high level of happiness comes from having a top-notch education system, extensive government services and a stable government (supported by the highest tax rate in the world). But most of Denmark’s secret sauce comes from a very simple idea called “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh).

My mother’s best friend from college happens to be Danish, and I asked her what hygge is about. She explained that it basically means spending quality time with people you really care about in an easygoing environment.

“The joyfulness in Denmark is because we spend time with each other, drink tea or coffee, eat crackers with cheese, and just look at one another in the eye and talk,” she said. 

“That’s it?” I responded with bemusement.

“That’s it,” she said. “We feel good when we are present, when we make others feel our presence and that we care.”

Hygge makes good sense. It promotes trust and helps remove stress. It creates a space that puts the relationship above all else. In America, our culture of individualism — no matter how strong our Gross Domestic Product — has not translated into higher levels of personal well-being or joyfulness. 

“Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence.”

To me, the joyfulness of Sukkot has a hygge-like essence. It’s why the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, was madly in love with the holiday, exclaiming that “there is no other mitzvah like dwelling in a sukkah during Sukkot: a person enters into it with his entire body, his clothes, his shoes.” He’s saying that Sukkot is a holiday where we have real presence, where we are enjoined to just be. It’s the presence of being, of being secure with the One above and with our most intimate friends and family. 


As Jewish Americans, we struggle with being present, which impedes our pursuit of joy. Martin Seligman, a founding leader of positive psychology, provides a very simple formula for joy — or “subjective well-being,” as he describes it. In his book “Flourish,” Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to represent what he sees as the five key elements to happiness: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. 

As I see it, Sukkot can serve as the absolute, God-given opportunity to start a life of PERMA. Here’s how it can work:

P — Positive emotions refers to the pleasant life, or feeling good; and this optimism, joy and gratitude are key to and part of the gratitude we feel on Sukkot.

E — Engagement is the presence of a flow state, or what is sometimes called “being in the zone.” Did you enjoy building the sukkah? Were you completely absorbed by what you were doing? Were you enveloped in the experience of Sukkot?

R — Relationships are everything. Be in the presence of family and friends, sharing in the intimacy of those around you. When was the last time you laughed with best friends? Invest in these relationships and honor them above all else. It’s the ultimate irony: If we selfishly want to feel good, we need to be with other people. 

M — Meaning is the awareness that something is bigger than us. It’s when we ask questions, engage in dialogue, clarify purpose and tell our story. What better time to do that than in a sukkah on Sukkot?

A — Achievement. We all just finished the High Holy Days. Now we get to sit back and enjoy.

Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said, “What is essential to life is invisible to the eye.” Using the sukkah to arrive at equanimity where we have emotional and psychological stability free from pain or any other phenomena that cause us to lose balance of mind, we get to feel the invisibility of presence — hygge, simcha!

On this Sukkot, let’s heed the advice of my Russian friend and stop forcing our kids to smile. Let’s learn, engage, ask and struggle. If we want to be joyful, be joyful. Construct it. Be with the people you love. This requires sacrifice. This requires doing.

You don’t need to be Danish to be joyful. Just be Jewish and reclaim Sukkot.

Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President, Education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.

When Life Hands You Etrogs

Photo by Deborah Danan

It wasn’t exactly the pampering honeymoon I’d had in mind. With no electricity, no running water and no bathroom to speak of, this was about as rough as it gets. The view, however, more than made up for the lack of luxury. Our accommodations, a two-room mud hut, were nestled in the Dumdir wadi between two mountains in the Anti-Atlas range in southern Morocco. 

There is plenty of greenery in the valley, where the land is more fertile and an aqueduct cuts a path between the mountain on one side and a 700-foot drop on the other. The Anti-Atlas mountain range is a sprawling terrain stretching some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert. 

Two very valuable trees are indigenous to this area. One is the argan tree, whose seeds are the source of argan oil used for cooking and, increasingly in the West, for cosmetics. The second is the citrus medica, or as it is more commonly known by Jews around the world, the etrog. My husband, Tsvi Dahan, deals in the latter. It has been his passion — and in good years, a source of livelihood — for the past two decades.

The story of the etrog is thousands of years old and almost as fascinating as the Bible itself. It is a tale replete with rabbinical disputes, historical debates and no small measure of scandal. Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart. Many Jews hold the belief that the etrog was also the forbidden fruit that led to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 

The story of the Moroccan etrog harks back to the first century C.E., when Jews first settled among the Berbers in North Africa after being exiled from the Holy Land following the destruction of the Second Temple, right through to present-day Brooklyn, N.Y., amongst Satmar Chasidim, who continue to wear the modest clothing and black garb of their 18th-century Eastern European ancestors. 

It is the day before Yom Kippur, 2017. Tsvi occupies a tiny storefront on Lee Avenue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. With jeans and a knitted kippah, he is clearly an outsider and will not make many sales. Still, quality trumps quantity in the Moroccan etrog industry, and Tsvi’s merchandise is nonpareil, allowing him to demand upward of $50 per fruit. A man enters. He examines the wares, gingerly picking them up one by one. He selects a yellowish, slightly corrugated etrog for closer scrutiny, using a magnifying glass and a lamp. 

“It is totally clean,” Tsvi tells him proudly. 

The man’s sidelocks sway as he nods his head in agreement.

“And look at the shape. Completely symmetrical and with a gartl,” Tsvi says, referencing the belt worn by Chasidic men. 

Tsvi Danan inspecting Etrogs.

Satmars covet an etrog with a slim waist that dips inward, resembling a Coca-Cola bottle. They also insist on it having as few marks as possible. 

Blemish-free is the holy grail of etrogs, but achieving it is more the realm of a horticulturist than an etrog farmer. For Tsvi, it’s mostly a matter of trial and error.  One year he’ll spray his trees with extra pesticide to deter insects, while another year he might try growing the etrogs in gauze bags to prevent dents from rogue branches. 

Apart from ritual use by Jews as part of the four species on Sukkot, the etrog’s other main use is in perfumes, and for that they don’t need to look pretty. 

Tsvi’s grandfather from Marrakesh learned the etrog trade from his mother and uncle. He then bequeathed his knowledge to his six sons. In 1998, Tsvi and his twin brother, Gadi, were employed by their uncles to help with the harvest in Morocco during Elul. That was also the year I met Tsvi. I was 16 and Tsvi was the soldier and medic accompanying my summer camp in Israel. It would be another 14 years before fate would cross our paths again and we would fall in love and marry. 

The following Elul, the twins decided to go it alone. In the years that followed, they would fail, many times, and lose a lot of money in the process. 

In 2007, Tsvi wrapped up a master’s degree and quit his job at a bank to go and spend time in Dumdir. For two months, he lived on the mountain with minimal contact with the outside world, learning the etrog trade from the ground up. He kept scrupulous notes in a journal. 

“I immediately felt connected to a past that is very rich,” he said. “When I was in yeshiva, I studied the Talmud tractate Sukkah and [in Morocco], in this place that is so far from everything, I got to encounter what I’d learned firsthand. It was amazing.”

During his time on the mountain, Tsvi met Bila’id, a local Arab from whom he leases a field. For 10 years, Bila’id has been Tsvi’s full-time employee for the year-round cultivation of the etrogs.  

Bila’id is a Shleuh, part of the Berber subgroup that dwells on the mountain and has been growing etrogs for Jews for centuries. In 1995, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, considered a Torah giant of the last generation, sent a delegation of rabbis and experts to the Anti-Atlas canyon to verify the kashrut levels of the etrogs. The findings, which included a total absence of grafted trees, led Rabbi Eliashiv to conclude that the lineage of the Moroccan etrog had remained unbroken for close to 2,000 years, making it unique in the world. 

“Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart.”

During our honeymoon, in April, 2016,  we spent a great deal of time with Bila’id and his sons. Our voyage to the mountain took us by car through Assads, the main village in the area, and then up serpentine mountain roads to Tamgersift. From there, we were forced to park and ascend the mountain by foot. The path was treacherous, only a foot wide at parts, with a steep precipice to the left. We trekked for an hour before reaching Tsvi’s field, but thankfully it was mostly in the shade — no small mercy since temperatures can reach as high as 127 degrees. 

My backpack grew heavier with every step but I refrained from complaining. The people I was with are tasked with carrying a few thousand etrogs down the same way to be inspected and sorted by Tsvi into categories ranging from 6 to 1 — with 1 being the most exquisite  etrogs — before being shipped to New York, Los Angeles and Israel. In the hut, Bila’id served me Moroccan tea with generous helpings of sugar. 

At the top of the mountain, there is a plateau with five hamlets. Once upon a time, two of the hamlets were exclusively Jewish while two others were Muslim. The fifth, Tignidin, is where Bila’id grew up, and it once had a mixed Jewish and Muslim population. Some of the Jews converted to Islam, but most left for larger cities like Casablanca in the 1930s and ’40s. 

The Jews of Tignidin owned the land in the Dumdir wadi and when they left, they gave the fields to the Arabs, Bila’id said. In return for looking after them year-round, the Jews promised the Arabs a permanent livelihood by coming back every year before Sukkot to purchase etrogs.   

Photo by Deborah Danan.

Bila’id has been growing etrogs for the past 30 years. “When I see a beautiful etrog, it makes me happy,” he said. Asked what he thought of the Jews and their strange commandments, he said, “The etrog is a symbol of goodness. This is how you serve God. You believe that if you have a beautiful etrog, your whole year will be beautiful. We try to stop the etrog from getting diseases, or becoming damaged by a thorn or a flying creature.”

Such notions, while sweet, are largely fanciful and have no real source, Tsvi said, adding that during the times of the Temple, the lulav, palm branch and etrog were used to pray for that year’s rainfall, which in turn represents livelihood. On a personal level, he continued harvesting and selling etrogs, despite its many pitfalls, as his way of  serving his Maker.

“In [a] regular job, [you] have a salary and that’s it,” Tsvi said. “But when it comes to growing [the etrogs], I am reminded constantly that everything is from Him. I can invest hundreds of thousands of shekels and have it all disappear in a flash when a drought causes the fruit to drop from the trees prematurely. I am completely at God’s mercy.”

Sukkot’s Blueprint for a New Home

At this moment, I can see the sky through the holes in my roof.

That’s not because I’m celebrating the holiday of Sukkot early. It’s because for several years, our roof has been leaking, and we’re now having it replaced. Lacking a roof makes you feel vulnerable. It makes you feel as though the elements are suddenly a part of your life that they simply weren’t before. It makes you worry every time the skies grow cloudy and it annoys you every time the weather gets too hot.

Lacking a roof makes you unhappy.

By contrast, the holiday of Sukkot is always a joyous time. It’s particularly joyous with children, as I’m now learning: their wonder at the beauty of the sukkah, their happiness in decorating it, their excitement at running out each meal to dine in it. What makes the sukkah so special, in contrast to your house lacking proper covering?

It’s the feeling that the impermanence is temporary. Soon enough, you’ll be able to go back in your house and live under a roof again. You’ll be able to feel the stability and protection of living in a home. Were Sukkot indefinitely long, it would be a difficult holiday.

That’s the message of Sukkot. Our world is the sukkah; our home is the broader sphere of the spiritual realm. In our sukkah, we rely on God to ensure that we’re not subject to the elements — we can protect ourselves to the best of our ability, but we’re never going to be able to avoid the vicissitudes and difficulties of life. But our lives are a mere moment in time, a time filled with great pleasure and great pain. Before and after our lives lies a fundamentally different eternity: solid and permanent, predictable and understandable. That is the promise of Sukkot.

What does this say about our politics? Something similar.

“We’re living in a political sukkah. But it doesn’t have to be that way — if we understand the lesson of the sukkah.”

It’s difficult not to be depressed watching our politics. Every day seems to bring some new storm of divisive nonsense: allegations dressed up as facts, opinions dressed up as facts, rage dressed up as facts. Every new day brings spin and anger, countered by more spin and more anger. Outrage follows outrage. It feels as though the cycle will never stop.

It will. We’re living in a political sukkah. But it doesn’t have to be that way — if we understand the lesson of the sukkah.

The reason the sukkah is only temporary is because we earn our way out of it. The Jews wandered the desert for 40 years living in booths because they refused to trust in God and live by His values. They would not believe that a more permanent state of affairs could be in the offing; they rejected the Land of Israel, believing themselves incapable of conquering it. And so God led them back into the wilderness. 

We must believe that a more permanent state of affairs is possible, but to earn our way back to that state of affairs, we have to be true to Godly values. Those values include a belief in telling the truth, no matter the consequences; valuing and having compassion for other human beings, even while fighting against sin; and recognizing that we are incapable of shaping reality to our whim. If we do that, we’ll build a new roof for ourselves, with God’s blessing. We’ll live together in the home we’ve built with one another. Impermanence will give way to permanence, uncertainty to certainty. 

With that promise, let us sit together on Sukkot and plan a more permanent home: a home where we share a common set of values and fight for the same goals. Then we can learn to enjoy the journey, even as we long for the destination.

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” and the author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

From Fear to Joy

Photo from Wilderness Torah

By During Sukkot — zman simchateinu — everything we acknowledged with awe and trepidation during the Days of Awe, we now celebrate in joy.

On Rosh Hashanah, we observed the birthday of the world, meaning that we owned our status as creatures. We acknowledged that we do not make the world and we do not make ourselves. We came into a world that already existed by the grace of That Which is much greater than us, a world that — God willing — will be here long after we leave it. During the Great Amidah, we sank into trust, lowering ourselves all the way to the ground in awe and respect of the One Who made us. We soberly accepted our existence as mortal, vulnerable, imperfect beings who survive and thrive through our mutual dependence and our obligations to one another and to God.

On Sukkot, we live in fragile temporary dwellings, open on one side to visitors, open to the sky. We rejoice in that fragility, calling in guests, protecting ourselves with mutuality rather than attempts at force. We experience our vulnerability as an opportunity to care for and feed one another — to give hospitality. Our needful mortality is the very condition for our rejoicing.

We remember the people in our city who live year-round in what should be temporary dwellings — booths of cardboard and tarp. Camping out is a delightful ritual for us, but not for them. If it rains, we are commanded to go inside — they have no inside in which to retreat. We recommit to ending homelessness and to giving what we can.

The Yamim Noraim begin during high summer under enamel blue skies. Heat shimmers off the pavement as we walk to shul. At night, the warm breeze gives us kisses. Green plants have grown tawny, farmers markets are bright with the last tomatoes and asparagus.

Sukkot celebrates autumn. We eat squashes and other roots. We prepare to pray for rain so crops will grow (again recalling those who will not have a roof to keep them dry). Even in Los Angeles, leaves will fall, some trees will begin to go bare, seeds will begin to drop, about to start their hidden work of renewal. We think about getting our sweaters cleaned (remembering those who don’t have warm sweaters and thinking about which ones we can let go to clothe them).

“During Sukkot, we count our harvest. We can acknowledge our accomplishments with the same thoroughness that we used to plumb our faults.”

On Yom Kippur, we deepened our work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, weighing our souls. We faced our most profound regrets and fears, voiced apologies, wept without embarrassment — and then, at sundown, let those things go. We accepted forgiveness.

During Sukkot, we count our harvest. Many of us, apart from gardens on patios or in backyards, no longer grow crops. But we can acknowledge our accomplishments with the same thoroughness that we used to plumb our faults. We can look back over the previous year at friendships begun or renewed, work done to speed social justice, income earned honorably and shared appropriately.

During Sukkot, we enjoy the tactile, fleshy, delicious aspects of being creatures of mortal flesh. We smell the fragrant citron. To the six directions we wave a wand of myrtle, willow and pine. And on the last day of Sukkot we begin to dance.

Finally, we arrive at the holiday of Simchat Torah. Judaism is the biggest book club in the world. For a year, we have been reading the Torah, the five books of Moses, all the way through. On Simchat Torah we read to the end, to the bittersweet story of Moses’ death — how he leaves the world, as most of us will, with work unfinished, his heart’s desire in plain sight and unattained, left for the next generation. 

Then we spiral back to the beginning with a whole year’s worth of new perspective. We read Bereishit, when the world is new, the people were created in the image of God — male and female and very good. We go back to the garden, lush and green, where everything is possible.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at Cal State Long Beach.

Moving & Shaking: Sukkot Brunch to Address Homelessness, Jewish Teen LGBT forum, John Lithgow emcees Friends of Sheba gala

California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (left) and Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas attend a Sukkot bagel brunch and legislative update at a sukkah set up in Hertzberg's Van Nuys home. Photo by Barri Worth Girvan.

California State Sen. Robert (Bob) Hertzberg’s Oct. 8 Sukkot brunch and legislative update drew about 30 Jewish social justice leaders.

Guests gathered inside a sukkah at his Van Nuys home as Hertzberg, a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, discussed a package of housing bills written to address the state’s homeless crisis and his commitment to reforming the cash bail system, which he said undermines the American idea of the presumption of innocence.

Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas also attended and was a guest speaker. He drew connections between the fragility symbolized by the sukkah and the situation facing the homeless. He also discussed the symbolism behind the lulav and the etrog, two of the four species used during the holiday of Sukkot, which was Oct. 4-11.

Barri Worth Girvan, Hertzberg’s district director, welcomed guests and asked everyone to introduce themselves as one big family.

Artwork from San Fernando Valley synagogues Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El, which are located in Hertzberg’s legislative district, decorated the sukkah.

From left: Teenagers Yoni Kollin, Sunshine Schneider, Maccabee Raileanu and Anthony Palomera participated in a JQ International Forum, “Today’s Teens: Voices of Queer and Ally Youth.” Photo by Anna Michele Falzetta.


The Teen JQSA (Jewish Queer Straight Alliance), the first communitywide youth group in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning (LGBTQ) and ally Jewish teens ages 13-18, held an Oct. 8 panel titled “Today’s Teens: Voices of Queer and Ally Youth” at the West Hollywood City Council chambers.

JQ International, Builders of Jewish Education and the city of West Hollywood organized the event. Teen JQSA is a JQ International program.

Panelists Maccabee Raileanu, Yoni Kollin, Sunshine Schneider, Anthony Palomera and Emma Aronoff-Aspaturian discussed challenges facing LGBTQ youth.

“I just want my administrators and directors and adults in my corner of the Jewish community to realize what they’re really asking when they ask for queer teens to be their own advocates,” said Raileanu, a longtime JQSA participant and El Camino Real Charter High School senior. “I want them to step into the shoes of the people they’re talking to, because then I think a lot of changes will happen. They will realize how scary and how weird and uncomfortable that experience can be, and they’ll step up as the adults in the situation and realize what they’re working with.”  

Social media personality Stephanie Frosch, known on YouTube and Instagram as ElloSteph, moderated.

The gathering drew about 50 attendees, including JQ staff members Asher Gellis, Arya Marvazy, Anna Goodman and David Kazdan, and Temple Judea Rabbi Samuel Spector.

Organizations that partnered with JQ to make the event possible included Congregation Kol Ami, Hebrew Helpers, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Kol Tikvah, IKAR, Adat Ari El and Camp Lightbulb, an overnight summer camp for LGBTQ young people.

JQ has been engaging in teen health and wellness work thanks in part to a grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its L.A. Jewish Teen Initiative.

Alyse Golden Berkley, the new board president of the Jewish National Fund Greater Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund.


The Jewish National Fund (JNF) Greater Los Angeles has named Alyse Golden Berkley as its board president.

Berkley succeeds Matt Fragner, who has served as JNF regional president for the past two years.

A JNF Oct. 16 press release announcing Berkley’s appointment said she is a “proud Zionist and active within the Jewish community.”

In a 2016 video, Berkley said her life changed after participating in a five-day JNF mission to Eilat.

“I actually could see the difference that I could make in my lifetime for Israel,” she said. “I could make a difference and I could improve the life of Israelis. Now, I devote pretty much close to full time volunteering for the Jewish National Fund, which is my pleasure, my honor.”

In a statement, JNF Greater Los Angeles Executive Director Lou Rosenberg welcomed the new regional president.

“We are very excited to have Alyse assume the leadership of Greater Los Angeles,” he said.

According to its website, JNF is the “single largest provider of Zionist programs in the U.S. Its work is divided into seven program areas: Forestry and green innovations, water solutions, community building, Zionist education and advocacy, research and development, heritage sites, and disabilities and special needs.”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller was named a Next Avenue Top 50 Influencer in Aging for 2017.


Next Avenue, a journalism website focused on America’s booming older population, has named Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller as one of its Top 50 Influencers in Aging for 2017.

Next Avenue recognized Geller for her efforts in creating Next Stage: Boomers & Beyond, an initiative designed to address the needs of community members who are 50 and older, and her more recent venture founding ChaiVillageLA, a partnership between Temple Emanuel and Temple Isaiah that enables people to age in place as they grow older.

Working in partnership with public television organizations, including PBS, Next Avenue divides its coverage into five areas: health and well-being; caregiving; money and security; work and purpose; and living and learning.

Geller, the third woman to become a rabbi in the Reform movement upon her ordination in 1976, was the only Jewish clergy member named to this year’s list. She made baby boomers a focus of her pulpit before her retirement in 2016, even speaking about it from the bimah during the High Holy Days.

Geller served at Temple Emanuel for 22 years. She currently is working with her husband, Richard Siegel, on a book titled “Getting Good at Getting Older: A Jewish Catalog for a New Age.”

Based on a statement she provided to Next Avenue regarding one thing she would change about aging in America, Geller said, “I would encourage the creation of religious and secular rituals to mark transitions in the journey of growing older, whether closing a family home, becoming a grandparent, reaffirming marital vows, sharing ethical wills or beginning new adventures. Marking transformations provide spiritual and practical guides for growth, connection and wise aging.”

Entertainment executive David Geffen has pledged $150 million to the building LACMA campaign. Photo by Bruce Weber


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has received a $150 million pledge from Jewish philanthropist and entertainment executive David Geffen toward the museum’s new galleries, raising the fundraising total for the Building LACMA campaign to $450 million. The campaign goal is $650 million.

In a press release, LACMA described the donation as “the largest single cash gift from an individual in the museum’s history. … [T]he new Peter Zumthor-designed building will be called the David Geffen Galleries in honor of his extraordinary gift.”

The David Geffen Galleries will replace four of the museum’s current seven buildings.

“At a time when federal funding for the arts is threatened, it’s important that we foster public-private partnerships, like this one, to support arts and cultural institutions,” Geffen said in a statement. “We must ensure that the public, everyone, has access to these venerable institutions. I am proud to partner with the County and other members of the community in helping LACMA move this remarkable project from vision to reality. Together, we can and must make sure every person has access to the arts.”

LACMA CEO and Director Michael Govan said Geffen’s gift is an unprecedented gesture of dedication to the exhibition of the arts in Los Angeles.

“David’s commitment demonstrates his belief in the power of art museums to reach a broad and diverse public and create significant civic benefit,” Govan said.

LACMA board of trustees co-chairs Elaine Wynn, a Jewish businesswoman who co-founded Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts, and Jewish-American businessman Tony Ressler also expressed gratitude for Geffen’s contribution.

Geffen, 74, is a movie and music mogul who founded Asylum and Geffen records and co-founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The son of parents who met in what was then Palestine, his estimated net worth is $7.8 billion.

From left: Friends of Sheba Medical Center Executive Director Nina Lieberman, honoree Shannon Massachi and gala emcee John Lithgow. Photo courtesy of Friends of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.


Actor John Lithgow hosted the Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s 47th anniversary gala, “Embracing Our Future,” on Oct. 15 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Philanthropists Robert and Beverly Cohen co-chaired the event, which drew 725 guests and raised more than $2.5 million for the medical center in Tel Hashomer, Israel. The funds will be used to support Sheba Medical Center’s new neonatology center. Sheba’s Department of Neonatology and Neonatal Intensive Care is one of the largest in Israel and births approximately 170,000 babies annually, including those born prematurely or requiring intensive care treatment.

Keynote speaker Dr. Tzipi Strauss, chief of neonatology at Sheba Medical Center, discussed Sheba’s work in advancing neonatal care.

Meanwhile, Lithgow presented Shannon Massachi, an e-commerce entrepreneur who has helped promote and advance Sheba’s medical research and pediatric neuro-oncology work, with the Laurel of Leadership award. After dinner, the Ruth Flinkman-Marandy and Ben Marandy family received the Professor Mordechai Shani Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their support for education, art, research, health, Israel and Sheba Medical Center.

Attendees included Marilyn Ziering, who announced a $1 million donation; Max Webb; Soraya and Younes Nazarian; Stanley Black; Jean and Jerry Friedman; and Dina Leeds.

Lithgow’s appearance included the reading of an original fairy tale about the life-saving work of the medical center, written by Hollywood writer and producer Jeff Astrof. The fairy tale featured a tiger and a goat — natural enemies — meeting and becoming friends through their life-saving treatment at Sheba Medical Center.

— Esther Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

B’nai David-Judea Celebrates 13 Years of Helping the Homeless

Pressman Academy students serve at B'nai David-Judea's Sukkot breakfast for homeless people. Photo by Kelly Hartog.

David Nimmer remembers how the idea began.

During a 2004 Torah class in B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s sukkah, a rabbinic intern explained that when God told the Israelites to “do my work,” it was a commandment to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.

Nimmer took the message to heart. “We should do this,” he recalled saying. “We should invite some poor and hungry people into the sukkah.”

The congregation made an effort, extending lunch invitations to a number of homeless people in its Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Only one person showed up.

“It was not the most auspicious beginning,” said Nimmer, a former B’nai David-Judea president. “But it was a beginning.”

On Oct. 10, some 70 people gathered for what has become an annual sukkah breakfast, part of a B’nai David-Judea program that serves monthly meals to about 60 homeless people. The program is celebrating its bar mitzvah year.

Inside the sukkah, B’nai David-Judea members and students from nearby Pressman Academy sat alongside homeless people, chatting with them and bringing bagels, cereal, coffee and juice to those too frail or too tired to stand in line themselves. 

The monthly meals are usually served by students from Yeshivat Yavneh or Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but Pressman students serve on Sukkot.

As the morning continued, attendees learned about traditional Sukkot customs, heard some Torah from B’nai David-Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, and sang, danced and shook the lulav.

Noah Weissberg, 13, was busy pouring cereal and milk into bowls for people waiting in line. “It’s really nice to see the people and talk with them,” he said. “It’s just a good thing to do. They seem really happy and we make them feel good.”

As the program grew over the years, it began to draw many from the Russian-Jewish immigrant community. To accommodate those Russians who speak no English, the synagogue now serves two monthly meals, including one specifically for the Russian community.

This year’s Sukkot meal, though, was a combined event with plenty of Russian being spoken. One attendee, Eugene, apologized for his broken English but said he loved the monthly meals, “because I did not grow [up] with Judaism in the Soviet Union.”

He waved off a reporter’s attention, saying, “I am nobody.” But on this day, every homeless person was treated as special, and Eugene said he enjoyed all the “Jewish things.”

Those things included Pressman students showing attendees how to shake a lulav if they wanted to try. Three girls assisted an elderly Spanish-speaking woman in saying the blessings over the lulav, explaining everything in Spanish.

Take a look around at everyone here and see how miraculous it is.” – Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

It was a festive, raucous morning, with people stomping their feet, clapping, singing, and even forming a conga line with Kanefsky at the lead.

Among those enjoying the festivities was Jesse, who said he had worked for 22 years cleaning the stands at Dodger Stadium, “But I’m retired now.” Jesse said he had attended the monthly lunch previously, but not the Sukkot meal. “This is all so new,” he said, “but I love it.”

He made an effort to shake the lulav and recite the blessings. “It’s so wonderful how the kids come and talk to you,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful thing.”

Jesse said that when he has attended the monthly meals he has also picked up one of the Ralphs grocery store gift cards Kanefsky has distributed to homeless people for years.

The number of gift-card recipients has grown so much that the synagogue eventually created a registration system to control costs, Kanefsky said, “but we also have smaller denomination cards for unregistered people who show up so that no one ever walks away empty-handed.”

With the meal program in its 13th year, Kanefsky said the challenge is constantly assessing “How are we meeting the needs of this [homeless] population and how are their needs changing?”

Standing in the sukkah, Kanefsky noted during his drash the impermanent and precious nature of life. “If we can enjoy the things while they are here, then our lives will be rich with fulfillment and joy and memories that will last us a lifetime,” he said. “Take a look around at everyone here and see how miraculous it is.”

B’nai David-Judea will commemorate the program’s anniversary with a Nov. 5 community brunch. Evangelical author and speaker Philip Yancey will discuss how to care for society’s less fortunate. The event will also feature Torah learning on feeding the hungry.

Las Vegas Embraces Torah in Time of Tragedy

An interfaith vigil in response to the Las Vegas shooting was held at Guardian Angel Cathedral nearby the Las Vegas strip.

Three days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Jewish community there headed into Sukkot, and the words recited at evening prayers, Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace — never seemed more apt.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of 600 families at Congregation Ner Tamid in nearby Henderson, Nev., held a small vigil on Oct. 2 alongside the community’s sukkah that was still under construction.

“I wanted to have an outdoor vigil,” Akselrad told the Journal, “because when you looked up, you could see the stars and see how small we are, and there has to be something greater we can draw upon and give us courage.”

His Reform synagogue also plans to host a fundraising concert called “Vegas Strong in Song” on Oct. 15 for the victims of the attack, in which 58 people died and more than 500 were injured. The event will include Jewish performers from around the country.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, which holds services in Las Vegas and has about 100 families as members, said that during Sukkot services “we acknowledged that life is certainly as fragile as a sukkah. In lieu of any kind of a sermon I might have given, I acknowledged that sometimes words are inadequate and gave my congregation the opportunity to break out in small groups and simply share what they had been going through since the massacre.”

Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said he was proud of the community and its response to the shooting.

“Whether it’s been collecting food and water for people, donating blood, or the upcoming concert, our community has been nothing short of miraculous and has responded to those in need,” he said.

Mintz personally called every family in her congregation after the attack.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for this to happen, but it happened instantaneously,” she said. “The interfaith community, especially, became galvanized, and rallies and vigils sprung up all over the city.”

Among them was the interfaith vigil at Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2, which Akselrad helped organize. “I spoke at so many vigils last week,” he said, but noted that his mantra at each of them was the same: “I choose to love love more than I want to hate hate.”

He said he spoke of what it was important to remember and what should be forgotten: “I don’t want to remember the name of the [shooter]. I want to remember the acts of courage and faith and of love. And the emphasis will be not that this was the worst tragedy, but that there were heroes who came forward in a time [they were] needed most.”

Beyond dealing with the physical needs of the victims, it became a priority in the Jewish community to make sure area children felt safe. P’nai Tikvah member Arlyn Katz said that in addition to the phone call from Mintz — who has two adult children and one who is 10 — she received an email on how to talk to her children.

“I was really grateful for that,” she said.

Mintz’s youngest child, Kayla, had to deal with a particularly close connection to the tragedy: The secretary of the dance academy she regularly attended was shot twice in the chest and hospitalized in critical condition as of Oct. 8. The secretary’s 13-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.

“When I woke up to get ready for school, I was really scared. That was a hard morning,” Kayla told the Journal.

While local public schools were closed the day after the shooting for security reasons, the private Jewish day school Kayla attends held classes as a result of the security already in place there. However, the school’s social worker came and spoke to the children, and the first hour of classes was canceled.

“It was a really heartfelt hour,” Kayla said. “It was emotional, but they kept asking us how we were and tried to calm us down.”

During Sukkot, Akselrad said he spent time doing a “trust walk” with the 15- and 16-year-old youths at Ner Tamid. The teens wrote prayers, wishes and poems and hung them in the sukkah. “They talked about their hope for healing and no more gun violence,” Akselrad said.

Yonina Kronfeld Schnee, a P’nai Tikvah member and special education teacher who lived in Israel for more than a decade, said the community came together following the shooting spree.

“I always felt safer in Israel than anywhere else because Israel is more prepared for things like this,” she said.

Journalist Chris Sieroty had attended Yom Kippur services at Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in Las Vegas, and was staying at the Mirage on the Strip for a conference when he heard sirens on Oct. 1. Initially, he thought nothing of it. 

“It’s Vegas,” he said. “If you’ve lived here long enough, you always hear sirens on the Strip.” 

But then his phone started buzzing. It was his niece who lives in Israel and is in the army calling to see if he was safe.

“I thought, ‘What’s she doing calling so late?’ so I didn’t pick it up,” he said. “But then I looked out the window and saw all the police, and the Strip was empty.”

He later realized that was because everyone had run into the casinos. Sieroty said he tried to get downstairs to see what was happening but the Mirage wasn’t letting people move about due to the concern that there might be another active shooter in the area.

More than a week after the shooting, the community now is focusing on how to move forward.

“The shooting affected everybody, and I suspect that the shock and the grief that initially fell over the city will give way to a plethora of other emotions, including anger and hopefully action,” Mintz said. “The prayers that sprung up will hopefully become what Abraham Joshua Heschel said: We will pray with our feet.”

Mintz said she hopes that will translate into “some sort of change that includes common-sense regulations for both firearms and for mental health.”

Akselrad echoed Mintz’s sentiments, adding, “We have to get involved in whatever we can do to help stop this horrific violence that guns cause.”

Polikoff said the Federation is thinking about “the long game.”

“We’re working with the Israeli Trauma Coalition and hoping to bring some of the Israeli expertise out here to help people deal with the trauma, the mental trauma,” he said. “The physical trauma will heal, but those first responders and those who were there that night are going to need help in the future, whether they know it now or not.” 

Sukkah At Kansas State Vandalized

An anti-Semitic poster was hung on the Kansas State University campus. Photo via WikiCommons.

A sukkah that was residing on the Kansas State University (KSU) campus was vandalized on Friday evening.

The sukkah was built on October 3 and was intended for Jewish students to gather and eat during Sukkot, but on Friday graduate student Glen Buickerood, a Hillel liaison, noticed that the “the Sukkah was gone.”

“The chairs and tables stood where the Sukkah had been,” Buickerood wrote in an email to campus leaders. “The stakes were still in the ground. Stakes that had been tied to the Sukkah had been pulled out.”

The Sukkah ended up being wrapped around Buickerood’s car, which damaged the vehicle. Buickerood added in his email that he believes that the sukkah was an act of anti-Semitic vandalism.

“This was a direct response to what the Sukkah stands for and represents,” Buickerood wrote.

KSU President Richard Myers issued a statement condemning the incident.

There is no place in our community for hateful, criminal reactions to religious expression,” said Myers “Many who live or work on our campuses, particularly those of the Jewish community, are experiencing significant pain and fear as a result of this act. Our hearts go out to those in the K-State family who have been negatively affected.”

The sukkah has since been rebuilt and on Wednesday the campus will be hosting a Sukkot Solidarity Dinner as a response to the vandalism.

According to an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study in April, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses increased by 86% by that point in 2017. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt is quoted on the site as saying, “Clearly, we have work to do and need to bring more urgency to the fight. At ADL, we will use every resource available to put a stop to anti-Semitism. But we also need more leaders to speak out against this cancer of hate and more action at all levels to counter anti-Semitism.”

Faith in the Ruins

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

In the middle of a Sukkot dinner last week, a guest’s wandering dog got a little lost.

When my host, Elon Gold, squeezed through a sukkah side exit to retrieve the dog from a narrow alley, the whole structure quivered around us.

“Elon, the sukkah’s gonna collapse!” his wife, Sacha, cried, urging him to be more gentle.

I looked up as the Moroccan lamps dangled over the couscous and a prime collection of single-malt scotch. It’ll be a shame if those bottles are shattered, I thought.

Fortunately, the disturbance this caused was very minor. But the metaphor was big, echoing the core message of Sukkot: What shelters us is fragile. How easily things can fall apart.

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy.

This isn’t a revelation for Jews. Sukkahs are supposed to be delicate, temporary dwellings, recalling the protective “cloud of glory” that God provided the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt as well as the booths they build for shelter. We build these booths to withstand a normal wind, but not a strong one. Only God is permanent, we’re told; our buildings and our bodies are ephemeral. 

I did not need reminding of this three days after a Las Vegas shooting massacre in which 58 people were murdered and more than 500 injured. I didn’t need reminding after Texans, Puerto Ricans and Barbudans saw their entire lives upended, their permanent homes decimated by the wrath of a storm. It’s no secret how vulnerable humans are to the forces of nature and the evils of our own darkest impulses — not to mention our terrible and chronic complacency in the face of horror.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that with every additional gun massacre we become less stunned, less shattered than we were from the previous massacre. The tragedy is no longer the tragedy; the tragedy is how inured we’ve become to “a culture of death” that grips us tighter with each new violent event. 

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy. For God’s sake, why do so many Americans buy so many guns?

“I think a lot of Americans have guns because they’re fearful,” Noonan wrote. “They fear a coming chaos. … They think it’s all collapsing — our society, our culture, the baseline competence of our leadership class.”

For some of us, everything seems fragile while others appear well protected. But we survivors of history know that it could have been any of us in that concert crowd, and that all God’s creatures live in the path of a potential destructive natural event, whether by flood, fire or earthquake.

Do we really need a reminder of impermanence, or do we need an assurance of God’s presence? Where are you, Permanent God? How can we reach you?

Two years ago, I wrote a column declaring Sukkot “the most romantic of Jewish holidays.” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, leader of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, told me, “Sukkot is all about pleasure.”

After the intensity of Yom Kippur, repenting the ways we’ve failed our creator, king and judge, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God — it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

But this year, it’s the honeymoon from hell.

Days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, I was on the treadmill watching a news report of a woman standing in floodwater up to her knees, with her destroyed home behind her, crying, “God is great! Oh my God, y’all. God is great!” She was sobbing, wailing, hysterical, but she kept repeating: “God is great!”

I thought, is she nuts?

In times like these, when life feels more tragic than romantic, we all have a choice: We can turn toward God, hang out like lovers in the Sukkah, or we can turn away. 

A rabbinic interpretation holds that when we are told to “blot out the memory” of Amalek, an archetypal villain of the Bible, what we’re really blotting out is doubt. The curse Amalek brings is confusion and despair.

But that is part of faith, too. Like the guest’s wandering dog, we get a little lost sometimes. Our shelter may collapse. But God is always there, trying to find us.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Sukkot, the holiday of appropriate balance

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

It was raining in Tel Aviv this morning. Raining over my Sukkah. It was the first rain of the year — in Israel, as you may know, there is no rain during the very long summer (it only rains during the very short winter). The rain was a sign that this year will be just like every other year: Rain that ruins the Sukkah is a tradition, much like snow that ruins Purim in Jerusalem.

Sukkot is my favorite holiday of the year, making me an exception. For most other Jews, Sukkot is, well, not as important. A few years ago, I mentioned an academic paper that examined the relative significance of Jewish holidays and showed how Israeli Jews and American Jews differ in their priorities. But, as you can see in the table below, in Israel, considering Sukkot one of the “most important” holidays of the year is not that rare, while in the U.S. it is:

Conspicuously, the authors of this paper did not include Yom Kippur in their survey and thus prevented us from getting the full picture. But there are other surveys with which we can see the full picture. In 2012, PRRI asked Jews in the U.S. “What is the most important Jewish holiday to you personally?” It did not include Sukkot in the survey, but it did include Yom Kippur. The results were as follows:

So, in this survey, Yom Kippur is more important than Passover and Hanukkah. In the previous survey, Passover and Hanukah are more important than Sukkot. Best case scenario: For most Jews, Sukkot is the fourth-ranking holiday, after Yom Kippur, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukah.

Of course, there is a big difference between declaring a holiday to be one of the “three most important” holidays, and the “most important Jewish holiday to you personally.” The first question is one of assessment, of understanding the priorities of the Jewish people and their traditions. The second question is one of personal preference. For a child, the personal favorite can be Purim — because it’s a fun holiday for kids — even though he understands that Purim is not the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Personal preferences change with time: As a child, I also liked Purim, but today I much prefer other holidays. Assessments of the general importance of a holiday also change with time, maybe not for a specific Jew, but surely for a new generation of Jews. One of the most striking findings of the PRRI survey concerned the generational differences regarding Hanukah and Yom Kippur. The survey found that “younger Jews are more than three times as likely as older Jews to say that Hanukkah is the most important Jewish holiday to them personally (20% vs. 6% respectively). They are also less likely to cite Yom Kippur (37% vs. 53% respectively).”

What about Sukkot? The argument I’d make to promote the status of this holiday is simple: Sukkot is the holiday of appropriate balance. It is the holiday that offers the most enticing combination of general importance and opportunity for personal affinity. It is, no doubt, an important holiday in our tradition, but it is also a fun holiday, if you care to celebrate it. Maybe it’s not as important as Yom Kippur. Maybe it’s not as fun (for kids) as Purim. But it’s just important enough and fun enough to both feel its significance and remain relaxed. Even when it’s raining.

A Toy Sukkah for the Kids

Photos by Jonathan Fong.

There’s great joy in the mitzvah of building and decorating a sukkah. To introduce kids to this beloved tradition, making a toy sukkah is fun activity that also provides an opportunity to teach the little ones about the Sukkot holiday.

As you create the sukkah, you can explain what Sukkot signifies and go through the rules of sukkah-building, such as how many walls and what you can use for the schach, the roof material. The holiday will definitely be more meaningful for them — and the whole family.

What you’ll need:

Cardboard box

Hobby knife

Colored paper


Popsicle sticks



1. Cut the flaps off a medium-size cardboard box with a hobby knife. I recycled a mailing box. You also can use a shoebox, which doesn’t even have flaps. (Never let the kids get near a hobby knife — they’re sharp.)




2. Decide which side of the box will be your roof. Cut an opening on this side so the roof is exposed. The schach will later cover this opening.




3. Glue colored paper to the interior and exterior of the box. For simplicity, you can also leave the box as is, or even paint it.




4. Decorate the exterior walls, if you wish. I cut out circles and glued them to the left and right exterior walls.




5. Decorate the interior walls. You can use stickers or family photos. I cut out leaf shapes and glued them onto colored rectangles to make autumn-themed artwork.




6. Make garlands by attaching circle loops to one another, and hang them from the roof.




7. For the wood slats of the schach, lay down wooden Popsicle sticks across the opening in the roof. Then place branches or other vegetation on them.




8. Furnish the interior however you’d like. I made stools by covering wood blocks with colored paper and made a table out of a plastic lid glued onto another block.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Best of Friends, Best of Fronds: A Lulav Story

For several months now, I have been dreaming of finding the perfect lulav — a palm frond the Torah requires us to wave as part of the ritual of the four species on Sukkot. 

To be kosher, a lulav needs to be at least 16 inches. Most lulavim that we see in synagogues are around 3 to 4 feet tall, but there is no maximum height limit for the lulav. 

I wanted a unique lulav to demonstrate my love of the commandment and my desire to serve Hashem. And, of course, I wanted something that would be exciting for the children of our synagogue in Washington, D.C., to see.

So I set out to search for a very, very tall lulav. 

The first step was to contact my friends in Israel and see if they could help. They couldn’t. The logistics were too complicated.

I then started looking in Arizona. I called the largest date farmers in the state. They were somewhat interested until they learned that I was looking only for a single frond.  After that, they weren’t so quick to return my calls. 

By this time, it was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and I feared that this year my dreams would not come true.

I had one last hope. I called my friend
Rabbi Yossi Cunin, the Chabad shliach to Beverly Hills.

The night before Rosh Hashanah, every rabbi has a million things to do. But when I called Rabbi Cunin, he seemed to drop everything to help me.

He called palm tree nurseries and date farms and random farmers looking for the right lulav.

The day after Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Cunin drove to a farm and looked at its palm trees. The owners offered him one frond that was almost 7 feet tall, the farm’s tallest. There were, however, a couple of catches. The farm wanted $650. We couldn’t justify paying that exorbitant price when an entire set of Four Species typically costs less than $65.

It already was almost Yom Kippur. I was ready to give up.

That night, Rabbi Cunin couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned all night.

He got up early in the morning and looked up at the heavens to ask Hashem for direction. He desperately wanted to help me find my lulav.

And then, he noticed, high in the sky, way, way up where he almost never looked before, there was a single, kosher lulav growing directly over his property.  

He had never noticed it before, but there it was — beautiful and glorious!

The next morning as the sun rose, he started calling gardeners to help him get it down. Finally, one man came and started climbing the palm tree. On his way up, he estimated the lulav was only 4 or 5 feet in length.

But then he cut it down and it turned out to be 9 feet 2 inches. It was the perfect size for us!

Rabbi Cunin immediately drove to Melrose Carpets, and the owner was kind enough to give him a carpet tube to ship it in across the country to Washington. It was too big for air freight, so it required ground delivery — seven days, with an arrival on the eve of the holiday of Sukkot.

I started out looking for the perfect lulav, but what I really found was the perfect friend. Here was a rabbi who dropped everything on the eve of a major holiday in order to help another rabbi in his service of Hashem.

I am so grateful that Rabbi Cunin shares with me the value that when it comes to serving Hashem, our efforts are a reflection of our values. If we put our heart and soul into performing a commandment, it demonstrates that we recognize that we are servants of our Creator.  And once we recognize that, then that in turn will impact every action we do in our lives. As true servants of God, we will be better able to visit the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the mourners and inspire the weary.

So if you want to wave the perfect lulav this year, you can stop by our synagogue. But even if you can’t make it, we all can join together in recognizing that we humans have work to do on this earth: We are all servants of our Maker.

RABBI SHMUEL HERZFELD is the head rabbi at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. 

Week of October 6, 2017

A Sukkah That Glitters With Guests

Dina and Fred Leeds like to entertain. And they have a large, beautiful home in the hills of West Los Angeles in which to do so. It is filled with art and antiques, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that once belonged to Pat Boone that’s parked conspicuously in the entryway.

“We celebrate all life occasions to the fullest,” Dina said.

This includes Sukkot.

Ever since they can remember, the couple, who have seven children, three of whom still live at home, have erected a sizable sukkah they designed themselves. The size of a large school bus, it fills nearly the entire balcony outside the game room on the lower level of their residence. In recent years, it has featured “walls” fashioned from rich, wine-colored fabric. In the past, the walls were a beautiful, cream color.

In addition to its size, the Leeds’ larger sukkah is distinguished by several other features. It has three chandeliers and a long, linen-topped table with seating for 40. Dina orders “Dancing Lady” orchids every year to dress it up. “Every single petal looks like a dancing lady,” she said. “I enjoy looking at them when the table vibrates.”

Fred is the principal of Fred Leeds Properties, a real estate company with holdings mainly in Southern California and Arizona, and Dina is vice president. They are known for their philanthropic work with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Museum, Magen David Adom (Israel’s emergency medical response network), StandWithUs and the Jewish Federation Real Estate Principals Organization.

In recent years, they have added a second sukkah next to their kitchen, though this one is far more modest.

Dina, who was born in Egypt but moved to Los Angeles when she was a toddler, credits Chanah Rachel Schusterman, a Los Angeles-based educator who teaches a weekly class for women, for the inspiration — a second sukkah where their children could eat a quick breakfast before school.

“I copied her,” Dina said. “I thought it was so smart: making the mitzvah easy and convenient.”

Given one of Fred’s earliest memories of the holiday, it’s a wonder he didn’t abandon Sukkot altogether. When he was 12, he was caught eating fruit off the sukkah at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“I was hungry,” he said.

Temple leadership was not amused. “I got kicked out,” he recalled.

Of their own sukkah, Fred said, “I love being under the stars and smelling the eucalyptus branches and being with friends.” The eucalyptus branches, which make up the roof of the sukkah, come from trees in their yard.

One tradition they keep: a pomegranate at every place. One year, Dina counted the number of seeds in the fruit. She wanted to confirm the lore she had heard since she was a child, that the number was equivalent to the total number of mitzvot (613) in the Torah.

“When we got to 943, I was devastated,” she recalled. She called her friend, Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air. “He said, ‘Oh, Dina, the Torah doesn’t say that. It’s mistranslated. What it does say is, your mitzvot should be plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate.’ ”

Whatever the number of seeds, the pomegranates have remained.

One practice that might surprise new visitors to the Leeds’ Jewish celebrations is a Sephardic tradition — one they maintain at Shabbat dinners — of throwing pieces of challah.

“When you pass bread to another man, you are subordinating him to you,” Dina said, explaining that throwing the challah instead symbolizes that no man provides for any other man. Rather, “a man’s sustenance comes from God, in the same ways that manna dropped from the heavens. … [Guests] are always pleased at what a good arm [Fred] has and what a good catcher I am.”

One thing the Leeds’ sukkah does not have is anything on the walls. “It’s traditional for Chabad not to decorate the walls of the sukkah,” said Dina, a self-proclaimed “shul hopper,” along with her husband. “It’s a beautiful idea,” she added. “The guests who enter the sukkah are your decorations.”

Among the hundreds of guests who have joined the Leeds over the years in their sukkah is Orly Halevy of West Hollywood, a professional photographer.

“I never saw a sukkah like this in my life,” said the Israeli-born Halevy, who has seen her fair share. “It is lavish. But it’s not over the top. It’s from the heart. … It’s a very warm atmosphere. They don’t do it to show off. This is their style.”

While it would be easy to focus entirely on the dramatic setting of the sukkah — nestled in the hills and surrounded by mature trees — as well as its fantastic size and beautiful table, Dina said that, ultimately, their tradition is all about observance.

“I love the beauty and wisdom of our Torah,” she said. “It becomes experiential in the sukkah.”

The Magic of Sukkot

Symbols of jewish fall festival of Sukkot, lulav - etrog, palm branch, myrtle and willow - on old wooden background.

As a child, I always wanted a sukkah. My family lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment in West Hollywood. The space had its drawbacks for our family of five, but all year long, the walls of our small dining area somehow expanded to accommodate a seemingly unlimited number of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. In our tiny kitchen, my mother cooked an array of Sephardic foods adorned with the artistic grandeur and culinary magic she brought from Algeria. There was only one holiday when physical limitations hindered us from celebrating our Jewish tradition in grand style: Sukkot.

We had no backyard or common area, and our single, tiny balcony could fit only a few chairs. So my family never was able to build its own sukkah.

Knowing how much I longed for my own sukkah, my mother would decorate the walls of our dining area with beautiful fabrics and the sukkah decorations I made at my Jewish day school. She suspended fruits from the small chandelier above our table, and — for the complete effect — affixed leaves to the low ceiling.

It may not have been a “real” sukkah, but it was the best we could do with the space we had. It was beautiful, it was meaningful and it was ours.

Still, I dreamed of having a sukkah of my own. Every year, I joined friends in the Bnei Akiva youth group to deliver palm fronds to Jewish homes all over Los Angeles. Along the way, I looked longingly at the variety of structures going up in people’s yards and driveways. 

One of my annual highlights was when one of our school rabbis would invite a group of us to a meal in his family’s sukkah. For my friends, those meals were breaks from their family sukkahs. For me, though, they were cherished opportunities. Some of my fondest memories are of those meals — singing, dancing and studying Torah with friends under the palm leaves.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to have a sukkah that blended the warmth my mother created in our dining room sukkah with the magical aura I felt in my rabbi’s sukkah.

That day finally came in 1993, when, after several years away from Los Angeles, I returned to become rabbi of a synagogue in Westwood, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. My wife, Peni, and I moved into a condominium building nearby. We didn’t have a backyard, but the common space was large enough to accommodate a sukkah.

As the holidays approached, I told Peni I would visit one of the Jewish stores to purchase a pre-fab sukkah.

She would have none of that. Peni grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brookline, Mass. Her father, a physicist whose own father ran a hardware store, built a sukkah every year on the family’s outdoor deck with a wood frame and yellow fiberglass sides. That lasted until Peni was in high school in 1985, the year Hurricane Gloria struck New England two days before Sukkot. As the family watched through the kitchen window, a gale lifted the entire sukkah off the deck and it crashed into the backyard, shattering into pieces.

With that formative experience in mind, Peni set to work, determined to build a sturdy sukkah (ignoring the fact that hurricanes don’t usually strike L.A.). She phoned her father for advice, then visited Anawalt Lumber to gather the materials: wood planks, screws and all the hardware. She proceeded to design, craft and build the most beautiful wooden sukkah I had ever seen.

I wasn’t blessed with my wife’s design or handiwork skills, so I was of little help. My only role in building this sukkah was to provide the schach — the palm fronds that form the sukkah’s rooftop. “After all these years, you can finally build your own sukkah,” my mother said, laughing, “and all you’re doing is putting palm fronds on top? Really?”

Feeling totally inadequate, I set out to find the best available schach. If this was going to be my one limited role in my first-ever sukkah, I was going to make this the most awesome roof that a sukkah had ever seen. But before I did that, I decided to study all of the halachah (Jewish law) relating to schach.

While Peni was sawing wood and crafting the walls, I sat at my desk with a host of rabbinic commentaries on schach. As I studied, I discovered that while my role was less creative and physically demanding than Peni’s, it was no less meaningful.

The Talmud tells of the “great sukkah debate,” a disagreement about the meaning of the Torah verse in which God says, “I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). According to Rabbi Akiva, the text is referring to actual sukkahs, physical structures. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He says the sukkahs weren’t actual structures — the “sukkot” were God’s protective clouds of glory, which hovered above the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness.

While Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation describes the sukkah as a complete structure with walls — an opinion with which Peni would concur — Rabbi Eliezer’s view depicts the entire sukkah as a protective rooftop. In other words, the schach is the sukkah. So, according to Rabbi Eliezer, by acquiring and adding the roof, I would be the one actually building the sukkah. (Try explaining that to my wife, who was outside in protective goggles, sawing and drilling wood.)

I set out to acquire schach, keeping in mind the Mishnah’s rule that the roof material can be anything “not susceptible to ritual impurity and that grows from the soil.” Instead of calling Bnei Akiva, I drove my compact Datsun to a nearby park and gathered the 15 most attractive palm fronds I could find. I somehow fit them into the car — the “magic” of Sukkot, I guess.

Arriving home full of joy and excitement, I climbed a ladder and placed the greenery atop the beautiful walls Peni had created. The two of us stood and admired the gorgeous sukkah we had constructed together, blending the spirit of both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer.

At last, I had my sukkah. What remained was for us to re-create the beautiful aura I remember from my Sephardic home’s dining-area sukkah, my rabbi’s spiritual teachings in his sukkah and from Peni’s cherished family memories. 

One of the texts I remembered learning in my childhood rabbi’s sukkah described the custom of the 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero to refrain from idle chatter and mundane conversation while sitting underneath the schach. Cordovero’s custom was rooted in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, that the schach represents God’s protective clouds. Because we are directly underneath them, he taught, we should engage in positive and spiritual exchanges. Cordovero turned his sukkah into a beit midrash, a house of Torah study, where the discussions around the table were matters of the intellect and the spirit.

Peni and I were eager to bring that spirit into our first sukkah. That first week was magical. We invited my parents and siblings, congregants, friends, colleagues and neighbors. One guest, an architect, marveled at the quality of the structure. “You have great talent with design and building,” he said to me.

I laughed and directed him to my wife. “All I did was put the branches on top,” I said.

Surrounded by loved ones, we stayed up late into each night of Sukkot that year, singing, eating, drinking and celebrating this unique tradition.

The sukkah is a Jewish space like no other. For seven special days, it can become our refuge from the negative politics and controversies of the outside world. By limiting our speech under the schach to Torah, literature, poetry, music, art and science, we can make it a “house of Divine wisdom.” Cordovero’s custom can empower us to turn our sukkot into libraries of the soul and sanctuaries of the spirit.

Not to mention ideas. The Israeli author S.Y. Agnon, a personal favorite, once described himself as “one who sits and writes stories in a small sukkah.” It may have been small, but it inspired such great stories and novels that in 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, making him Israel’s first Nobel laureate. If the sukkah worked for Agnon, maybe it could work for the rest of us.

The theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” The sukkah can serve as a palace of big ideas with the schach — God’s protective clouds — not only hovering above our heads but penetrating our minds and souls.

Over 24 years, Peni and I have hosted hundreds of guests in our sukkah. Besides creating the structure of the sukkah, Peni, who comes from an Ashkenazic family, learned to masterfully re-create the Sephardic dishes from my mother’s kitchen. From her own childhood come her bubbe’s rolled cabbage and homemade gefilte fish and the traditional Ashkenazic zemirot (religious songs), which we love to sing. Together, we have worked to create a sukkah table that, in a sense, represents Jewish unity.

That sense isn’t limited to food and songs. We are committed to making our sukkah a place where Jews of all backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable. Under the palm fronds and within the walls, we have heard and shared stories in French, tunes in Ladino, prayers in Arabic, recipes in Farsi, poems in Spanish, and Israeli songs. Our children have hosted sukkah sleepovers, and our sukkah walls have embraced passionate discussions over Israel and other emotional issues, all in the spirit of celebrating unity within our community’s diversity.     

That seems fitting for Sukkot, the one holiday for which the Torah invites Jews of various backgrounds to bond as one and sit together: “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42) Based on that verse, the Talmud envisions a grand Jewish gathering: “This teaches that all Israel are able to sit in one sukkah.”

By inviting all Jews to sit in one sukkah and enjoy God’s shelter from the same schach above our heads, Sukkot asks us all — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Chassidic, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Israeli and Diaspora Jews — to celebrate our differences together, at least for a week.

Our celebration at home often includes non-Jews, as well. Many of them have marveled at the unique beauty of the experience. “If this is the way the Israelites lived in the desert,” one told me, “they should have stayed there!”

Amid all of its festivities, Sukkot presents an irony. In our prayers, we refer to the holiday as Z’man Simchateinu, “our season of joy.” One would think that joy would include indulging in all of the physical comforts in life. Yet on Sukkot, we are commanded to celebrate by leaving the comfort of our homes.

Raising our children in Los Angeles, Peni and I have worked hard to teach our kids that life isn’t all about your ZIP code or the year and make of your car. Sukkot, when we find joy while living outside, beneath palm leaves, has helped us convey that message to them.

More than once, we have hosted children who live in homes so large that they could have sukkahs bigger than the entire apartment I grew up in. These families don’t build sukkahs, but when their children come to ours, they seem as captivated as I was all those years ago in my school rabbi’s sukkah.

Think of how we spend money on electronics — phones, tablets, laptops — and just a few months later, the new model comes out, and the one we have isn’t good enough anymore, and we convince ourselves that we must upgrade. Sukkot challenges us to think differently. It reminds us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment and much more.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer agreed that when the Jews wandered in the wilderness, a sukkah protected them.

My own Sukkot journey has taken me from the decorated walls of my little dining room to the schach I placed atop the beautiful walls built by Peni. Throughout, one common thread has remained: The real magic of Sukkot lies not in what you build, but how you live within it. 

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem and executive offices in Los Angeles. He also is an instructor of Talmud at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

The Sukkah as Spiritual Medicine

The interior view of a Panoramic Sukkah. Photo courtesy of Eliyahu Alpern

Can you say you love your body?

I wish I could. I’m embarrassed not to love this vessel that has served me so well. 

After all, our bodies are our golden ticket to existence on this earth, the condition of our very aliveness. And yet I struggle daily, and have since I can remember. Even as a little kid, along with the joys of movement, I carried a self-reflexive disgust at my physical form.

Where does this struggle come from? Nothing particularly sets apart my body from other human bodies — a privilege in a culture where people of differing abilities, genders, sizes and races are the target of comments and attacks based simply on their appearance.

There’s no easy explanation. And yet I always have had this sense that my body overflows its boundaries, that my hunger and my shape are somehow shameful. Like some sort of spiritual radon, this discomfort leaks into every element of my relationship with this body I call home.

I don’t know why this happens — but I do know that I’m not alone. Kerry Egan, in her beautiful book about being a hospice chaplain, “On Living,” writes:

“There are many regrets and many unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with me in the months or weeks before they die. But the time wasted hating their bodies, ashamed, abusing it or letting it be abused — the years, decades, or, in some cases, whole lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it — are some of the saddest.” 

This epidemic lives deep inside so many of us. Even in those of us who truly believe that all bodies are beautiful, that sisterhood is powerful, that we must throw off the bonds of oppression.   

Which raises the question: What is the medicine for this sickness? What practices can help heal us — can hold our whole bodies exactly as they are, and can celebrate our bodies in all our imperfect radiance? 

Jewish tradition has an answer — accessible to all, ancient as the nomadic impulse, as basic as the need for shelter. It may be made of twigs and hay and strung-together flowers, yet it is somehow powerful enough to outlast entire civilizations.

Yes, I’m talking about the sukkah.

You gotta love a mitzvah that invites us — requires us! — to show up with our whole bodies. A practice that surrounds, embraces and sanctifies every single part of our physical selves.

The sacred thinness of the walls reminds us what it means to be cold, to feel the air on our skin, to appreciate shelter.

The roof of organic material, through which we can see the stars, reminds us that only in this particular body can we experience the universe, reminds us of how very tiny and miraculous we are.

Yes, the sukkah is good medicine.

After all, we live in a society that is synced with the mind, not the body. We are surrounded by plastic, by bleating voices that emerge from tinny speakers. Technology cycles ever faster; our glowing, hand-held rectangles connect us and distance us in the same moment.

There is a pleasure in this, to be sure, but it is a fleeting pleasure, a sugar high that dissipates, leaving us exhausted and hungrier than before. We begin to lose the pleasures of the body, pleasures of touch, smell, moon, water, earth.

Sukkot invites us back into the bodily realm. We enter a hut made of natural materials that have grown, like our bodies, from the soil. We enter an experience of time in which obsolescence is measured in millennia, not months. In this space, our body becomes the flame on a match, flaring, then gone — our time too brief to even consider despising the miraculous mechanism through which we experience God, through which we experience one another.

Some see the sukkah as a way for us to remember, culturally, the time we wandered in the desert. But as in Passover, when we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, perhaps we also need to cease personally to wander in the desert. For some of us, this is the desert of struggling with our bodies.

Beneath the canopy of sky, all that limitless expanse, the sukkah shelters us.

It is, like our bodies, a temporary dwelling, beautiful and imperfect, in which we stay for a while, until we return to the earth. 

ALICIA JO RABINS is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore.

Bumping Into Voices

Because this is my first issue as editor-in-chief, I’d like to give you a mini tour of what you’re about to see. One of the joys of being a journalist is that we’re always bumping into interesting voices, and this Sukkot issue reflects many of the voices and stories I bump into in the course of hanging out in our community.

The voice in this week’s cover story is that of my friend Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who shares his personal take on the unusual holiday of Sukkot. Daniel and I share a love for coffee and books. We’re both Sephardic Jews attached to our Sephardic customs but also fascinated by the diversity of the Jewish tradition. His story gives you an inkling of this diversity. And right after his Sukkot story, you’ll get a sneak peek at the magical sukkah of local philanthropists Dina and Fred Leeds, who take the mitzvah of welcoming guests quite seriously.

In anticipation of my new role, I’ve been on the lookout for fresh new voices. Last year, I hosted New York author Karen Lehrman Bloch at my house for Shabbat. Karen, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times and The New Republic, has the voice of the classic liberal who understands the value of meeting in the center, or, as she puts it in her debut column, in the “radical middle.”

Over a shakshuka breakfast at Pico Café, I asked my friend Salvador Litvak, the filmmaker who has built a large following as the “Accidental Talmudist,” if he’d want to contribute something “talmudic” for this issue. His piece, “War at the Book Club,” does just that — examining how we can disagree without animosity.

Kay Wilson is a writer, cartoonist and musician who lives in Jerusalem. We were introduced recently by a mutual friend. Several years ago, Kay survived a horrific stabbing attack at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I asked Kay if she felt comfortable enough to share thoughts that have come out of that horror. Her piece, “As I Lay Dying,” speaks to life’s deepest lessons.

I came across Alicia Jo Rabins on Facebook and was intrigued by her lyrical prose. Alicia is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her piece, “The Sukkah as Spiritual Medicine,” is a poetic meditation connecting the sukkah to the human body.

My friend Aomar Boum is a Muslim associate professor at UCLA who’s a regular guest at our Shabbat table. He’s an expert on the Jews of Morocco, where I was born. My mother’s cuisine reminds him of his mother’s cuisine. I asked Aomar if he’d write something explaining his fascination for studying Jews. “I’m an academic writer,” he replied. “Will that work for your readers?” I told him to write from the heart, and he did.

I met the head of Chabad of Puerto Rico, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, about 15 years ago on my way to a Caribbean cruise with my family. Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Maria tore into the island, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I tried reaching him several times. When I finally did (thank you, WhatsApp), we spoke about the disaster, but also about a little miracle: How Zarchi and his wife found a way to hold Rosh Hashanah services and serve holiday meals after hundreds of gallons of water had flooded their shul. Reporter Kelly Hartog has the story.

Another voice I bumped into on Facebook is that of Israeli-born Yamit Behar Wood, the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. Yamit writes about food, but also about the cultures that surround food. Her first story is about her late Aunt Dora, her culinary mentor.

Right after Yom Kippur, we got the sad news of the passing of television personality Monty Hall. Monty was a friend of the Journal and of charitable organizations everywhere, as well as a storyteller extraordinaire. We pay tribute to this local hero in this issue.

On the day we went to press — as we were putting the finishing touches to the paper — we got news of the tragic massacre in Las Vegas. In addition to our last-minute coverage, we have a poem reflecting on the tragedy by Hannah Arin, a millennial writer who will be a regular contributor.

One of the looming political issues today is whether President Donald Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal as the Oct. 15 deadline approaches. Larry Greenfield, who served as executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior political scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corp., debate the merits of both sides.

Steven Spielberg opens his own heart in “Spielberg,” the first feature-length documentary of his life, premiering Oct. 7. Our contributing writer Gerri Miller shares a few interesting anecdotes from the film, including the fact that Spielberg’s parents’ divorce influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

We also have book reviews about two great Jews this week. The Journal’s book editor,  Jonathan Kirsch, writes that “the late Shimon Peres calls to us from the grave” in his posthumously published memoir, “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel.” Monica Osborne weighs in on William Kolbrener’s “The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition,” a complex take on a complex man.

From Israel, our senior political editor, Shmuel Rosner, shares his latest insights on what’s going on in Israel as part of his expanded “Rosner’s Domain” page. We’re also adding a column titled “Humans of Israel,” where American expat writer Debra Kamin will profile Israelis of all stripes. Her first piece is on winemaker-philosopher Yonatan Koren, who runs an organic winery in western Galilee.

Closer to home, contributing writer Rebbecca Spence writes about three Jewish women who are leading the way in the legal cannabis trade, while Roberto Loiderman writes about a new recording of “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,” a musical-theatrical show that celebrates Ladino culture.

Reporting on the holiest day of the year, Senior Writer Eitan Arom covers an emotional episode at Temple Israel of Hollywood that resulted from its senior rabbi’s discussion of politics at Kol Nidre.

On a lighter note, we’re adding little “spice boxes” throughout the paper with things such as humor and big questions to ponder for dinner conversation.

As I begin my new journey, one of my aims will be to look for voices that try to open minds rather than change them. I want to provoke thought, not anger; curiosity, not cynicism; fascination, not smugness.

I want to touch every member of our incredibly diverse community. I won’t always succeed. Some voices you will like more than others. Some voices will return, others won’t. It’s a journey we will take together.

What I can tell you is that everything I do will come from the deep love I have for this community — and for all the interesting voices and stories I keep bumping into that I can’t wait to share with you.

Chag sameach.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

A Plea After Vegas Shooting: Let Us Bring Light Into Darkness

A candlelight vigil is pictured on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Our spouse, child, sibling, parent or friend is missing, and we don’t know if they are dead or alive. Families in Las Vegas are living this nightmare right now, moving through hospitals, hoping to find their loved ones and praying that “missing” does not mean an unidentified body.

On Oct. 2, Rabba Ramie Smith and I drove to Las Vegas to be a source of support wherever we were needed after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. We donated food and water — sponsored by Yeshivat Maharat, the first school to ordain Jewish Orthodox female spiritual leaders, from which we both graduated — to a local church that delivered truckloads of supplies to victims, their families and local volunteers and first responders. We participated in a prayer vigil for people of all faiths. And we provided pastoral care for families waiting to hear from authorities about the fate of their loved ones, living this nightmare.

Local police, trauma and grief counselors, chaplains and lay volunteers are doing the holy and excruciating work of walking families through this horrific time, bringing a little bit of light into immense darkness. We are grateful for their service and can and should explore ways to also be of support with them.

But after reading the news, donating things such as food, water, blood and money, and even volunteering, how do we personally process the reality of loss and terror in the world? And especially right now, how do we as Jews celebrate Sukkot, the holiday of prescribed joy, when it seems that our year has started with tragedy?

I believe we can begin to find answers, resilience and even hope when we focus on the sukkah. The sukkah is a place we invite guests (ushpizin), a physical representation of opening our tents, like Abraham and Sarah, to connect with others. At this time of year, God tells us we cannot stay in our homes and avoid the world, we cannot be insular. We have to see our family as bigger than it usually is. Instead, we build a space that is naturally open, that welcomes others to enter, which means bringing strangers into our hearts. This act creates the simcha (joy) of this season because it unites us, making us love one another and see the goodness and Godliness in one another. Joy is an outgrowth of generosity, love and gratitude.

“We are hurt, but we will never be broken. In Vegas, we welcome people from around the world to our home every day. This makes it more horrifying that one of us — a local — did this. Some people think Vegas is a filthy place. But that’s not what it is. It’s my home and it’s hospitality. We will still continue to welcome people. We are strong. People here help each other. This is the Las Vegas that I love. This it the America I love.”

I heard these words from a woman who opened her restaurant in the middle of the night to survivors of the shooting who had nowhere else to go. She made her space — her home — everyone’s home.

This is the message of the sukkah. It is a message we desperately need at times when we would otherwise be isolated, lost and divided — a reality we see right now far too often. It is the response God gave us — the tool He equipped us with — for moments like this when we face unfathomable suffering and tragedy caused by human hatred.

This year, we must respond to the reality of terror, to the horrors of the shooting in Las Vegas, davka by celebrating Sukkot. The sukkah answers loss, terror and tragedy with love, warmth and welcoming arms. It is the antithesis to evil and, God-willing, it will end the nightmare.

This year, as we enter into the sukkah, may God give us the strength and courage to open our tents to those in need, the inspiration and drive to volunteer or donate to efforts supporting the victims and families of Las Vegas, and the joy to be people who make our home everyone’s home.

RABBANIT ALISSA THOMAS-NEWBORN is a member of the spiritual leadership team at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles. Read more about her visit to Las Vegas after the shooting at our partner site JTA.

Every Year Coming to Yizkor by Rabbi Janet Madden

Memorial candles

Every year now, in the midst of apples and honey and family recipes and the sweet new beginnings of Rosh HaShanah, I am already looking ahead to Yom Kippur, thinking of the first Yizkor book in which my mother’s name was included and the first Yizkor service in which I, too, was among those mourning a parent. Every Rosh HaShanah reminds me, again, of how every year since that first year, the High Holy Days have been connected to her yahrzeit and private, personal mourning and memories and to the first Yizkor service of the new year. Every High Holy Days brings me the opportunity to remember and mourn publicly, with those newly-bereaved, as I was that year, and with those who have learned, as I have, that there is a beautiful balance between sadness and comfort when we acknowledge our griefs in community.

Of course, I knew long before my mother’s death that the ten days of the Yamin Noramim—the Days of Awe—are filled with reminders of the brevity and uncertainty of life. The liturgies of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur reiterate the reality of our mortality. The Unatana tokef prayer, especially, uses graphic images to remind us of our reality: that even as we wish one another to be inscribed and sealed for a good year, we really have no idea what sorrows and joys await us. But the year that she was diagnosed and we were told that she would not survive more than a few months—and in fact died within weeks—was the first Rosh HaShanah that I had just buried a loved one, and, I think, the first time I understood the Unatana tokef.

Every year since that year, the High Holy Days make me more aware, again, of mortality. Of course, they are supposed to. The High Holy Days are intended to be awesome; they are infused with a sense of urgency that encourages us to not engage in denial, to not postpone, to not avoid difficult conversations and decisions. In heightening our awareness that life ends and that there is never enough time, the process of engaging in teshuvah—of turning, returning and being turned—is intended to disrupt us, to wake us up and shake us out of complacency. The High Holy Days push us to reflect on life’s big questions: who we are, what our purpose is, what our lives mean, how we want to be remembered.

For me, the season of the High Holy Days is also the time that I turn over garden soil, harvest the last of summer crops, plant winter vegetables, and rake up feathers from my molting chickens. I think of this as a naturally pensive time, the turning of the seasons reminding me that I’ve lived through another year and that so many have not. The timing of the High Holy Days means that the natural world itself reinforces the theme of turning and returning: summer has ended, the daylight is changing, leaves are turning colors and falling from trees, the Autumnal Equinox—which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, took place on the second day of Rosh HaShanah—momentarily balances day and night as exact equals. I like to think of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, the first Yizkor of the year, as the liturgical equivalent of the Autumnal Equinox: the opportunity to balance sorrow with consolation, the past with the present, regret with hope, private remembrances with public commemoration. Perhaps that is the reason why even those who otherwise eschew synagogue attendance show up for Yizkor—because grieving alone is painful and grieving together to reminds us that so long as there is a Jewish community we are not alone.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden


[Ed. Note: We at Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute hope that your holiday season – for those who celebrate – was meaningful and uplifting, and that you have been inscribed and sealed for a good, sweet year full of blessings. To those who engage in the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the broadest sense be granted additional blessings for their participation in this holy endeavor and sacred labor. — JB]




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting roughly in January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.



Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.