Strolling through the Orthodox neighborhoods of Williamsburg on the last day of Sukkot, I passed row upon row of three-sided huts built against storefronts, brownstone doors, balconies, and sidewalks.
Past roofs of pine boughs hung with paper chains, tissue paper flowers, Jewish stars made of popsicle sticks, dried gourds, red and yellow kernelled corncobs. Picnic tables draped in plastic, laden with half-drunk bottles of grape juice and wine and torn-apart challahs and loafs of chocolate bubke. Tinsel strewn on the ground, posters listing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel thumbtacked onto ply board walls. Lulavim. Etrogim.
When I was a child, the red rug of the sanctuary on Friday nights, the red cushioned seats, the huge wooden ark where the Torah was kept, the slightly musty smell, made me feel like I was inside of a huge body. I heard traffic from the street and the twisting cry of an ambulance, and I stood amazed that the world outside continued, and at how far away and protected from it I felt. I pitied the people on the street in their cars, bright headlights poking into the night. I felt bad that they didn’t get a break, weren’t resting. For me the Sabbath was a clean break, a completely other world. I quietly hummed to myself while running my fingers through the fringes of my father’s prayer shawl, braiding them like hair.
For much of my adult life I have lived in small, quiet, rural places. There, a weekly observance of Shabbat, and the ceremonies of the monthly and yearly rituals felt like a natural way to mark time, and to gather family and friends together across a vast landscape. But after moving to New York City, I encountered a different perspective on religious observance. The thinking seemed to be — at least in the secular academic circles I found myself in — that if you need religion there is something you’ve failed to provide for yourself, some lack of confidence, purpose, friends, community or things to do on a Friday night, and that any religious faith or spiritual sentiment not only stands in direct opposition to one’s intelligence, but is also a sure sign of mental weakness or social dullness.
I didn’t realize quite how affected I was by this en vogue secularity until I was walking with some classmates through the university campus where we were pursuing master’s degrees. A few bearded, black-hatted men wearing long black coats approached us. “Are you Jewish?” they asked, thrusting lulavim and etrogim towards us. We were all Jewish but we shook our heads no, smiled politely, and kept walking.
I would have liked to have stopped, and for the moment it took, shaken the lulav and smelled the etrog. But we were on our way to meet friends, and I told myself I didn’t want to hold up the group. But perhaps more true was this – I was uncomfortable being witnessed in an act of almost embarrassing vulnerability – that of tradition, belief.
The sukkah is a public display of inner faith. It is a visible expression of observance, not an inconspicuous Star of David worn beneath a shirt. Sukkot (plural of sukkah) symbolize impermanence and are meant to remind us that our lives are temporary, fragile constructions. They stand in exact contrast to the monolithic stone buildings of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, to the glass skyscrapers of midtown, to the sense that people, rather than God, are in control.
I flinched a little when I passed the large sukkah in Union Square, and the smaller one in Washington Square. I perceived Jews to be making spectacles of themselves, but I was struck with a tension between embarrassment and wanting to join in.
During my Williamsburg stroll, I recognized the hushed feeling that had come over the neighborhood. It was dusk and the stores were closed. The last stragglers scurried through October wind towards synagogue. I envisioned the yellow lights and waves of singing that would fill the Williamsburg temples. I realized with a pang that I had become one of the people out in the rushing world while the religious folks sat in warm sanctuaries, surrounded by family and friends. The life I’d created in the city straddled two worlds: one foot resting on the tradition I grew up with, and the other foot more hesitantly placed on the new terrain of secular urban existence. They both exerted a pull. I’d have liked room for both.
On my way home that night, I spotted two young boys wearing the black suits and twirling side locks of Orthodox Jews in the white-tiled tunnel between subway lines. They carried a long, green, lulav like a torch, and a white square box that I knew held an etrog. I ran up to them and said, “Can I?”
Not meeting my eye (as good Orthodox boys shouldn’t, out of modesty), they nodded and handed me the lulav and etrog. I stuck my fingernail into the skin of the etrog and inhaled the sharp citrus. I said the blessing and shook them together, as is the custom, possibly not as loud as I could have, possibly with my face turning red as I felt the stares of passersby. But there, between the uptown N,Q,R,W and the downtown N,Q,R,W, the two walls and tiled ceiling of the subway passage a kind of sukkah, I shook the lulav in six directions, affirming that God, or tradition, or something, was all around me. Even here. Even underground.
Gila Lyons holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University and is a writer and teacher.