I was moved to tears the other day when we visited a family with young children for Sukkot only to find that their sukkah had blown down in high winds. In their pristine back yard, on a putting green of healthy grass, a metal frame lay ominously on its side, like a giant spider carcass, or a sculpture by Louise Nevelson.
Perhaps I was rattled by this sight because the previous evening my younger son and I slept in our sukkah for the first time, feeling protected enough by our new fence to live, for one night at least, in our urban backyard. Or maybe it’s the recent appearance of our third child, a daughter, and the balance of gratitude and fear I still feel when I see her squirming and rolling around the blanket on the floor of our sukkah near the Hayward earthquake fault in Berkeley, looking up at the homemade art dangling from the ceiling like an oversized mobile.
In recent years Sukkot has become an increasingly important holiday for me. And I think the reason is that the holiday has become more important in our culture — in some ways even replacing the Passover seder as the public Jewish ritual with the most to teach the world about humanity’s current trial separation from our environment, and how a simple DIY backyard booth may offer our best chance to model a livable — much less utopian — future.
Why does this ancient Jerusalem agricultural festival, which evokes the fragile dwellings inhabited by the Israelites wandering through the Sinai Desert, resonate so deeply?
Within the Jewish ritual flow, the unbridled joy and optimism of Sukkot is in stark contrast to the potential apocalypse of Yom Kippur, when we invoke the closing of the heavenly gates, and wonder if we will make it until the next year. The sukkah, by design, has no gates — not even a fourth wall to open or close. The sukkah, and its experience, is how we would design utopia, or the Garden of Eden.
Sukkot also connects us with our deeper agricultural and ecological selves. We eat and live simply, outside, with an acute awareness of the passing of seasons and our place in the larger ecology. The rhythms of nature, which our culture is noticing more profoundly as they start to fundamentally change, will be explored in the next year more robustly by many Jewish organizations as the seven-year sabbatical year, or shmitta, begins next Rosh HaShanah.
Like Passover, with its focus on freedom and universality, Sukkot is a truly open invitation to Jews and people of all backgrounds to experience and learn. Keeping at least one wall open, and recalling the spirit of ancient guests like the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, we acknowledge Judaism’s long view of history, and our culture’s exquisite sensitivity to wandering and woe.
The creation of Sukkah City in Manhattan three years ago (about which a documentary film has just been released), in which a dozen artful sukkot were constructed to the delight of 200,000 visitors, was a kind of coming-out party for this holiday. One of the winners of this competition was Sukkah of the Signs, which included hundreds of signs made by the homeless. It was a stark and beautiful reminder that Jews, by and large, are no longer the ones in exile in America — now the exiles are the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill that we pass on the streets every day.
It’s hard to note the escalating impact of the Burning Man festival without reference to the idea of a sukkah. Many Jews have created a Semitic track within Burning Man, the late summer utopian Dadaist community created and destroyed each year in the Nevada desert, and the similarities between the sukkah and Black Rock City there are uncanny. Out in the desert, people make a pilgrimage to share food, art and often spiritual revelation, building an enormous Temple that (along with the male effigy) is ultimately destroyed. After eight days (the same length as Sukkot) thousands of “burners” return into exile, bringing a bit of their collective, mind-altering experience back into their everyday lives.
We each have our personal sukkot, the utopian fantasy we build in our minds or with our hands. For the past few years, I have watched my sons, now 11 and 8, work together to build our sukkah — charging the drill, carrying the wood, drawing the art, and shlepping the chairs. I think of this every Friday evening when we bless our children, reciting for the boys the wish that God make them “like Ephraim and Menashe,” Jacob’s grandchildren. Why Ephraim and Menashe? Because they were the first brothers in the Bible not to fight. And for this achievement they are rewarded with thousands of years of blessings, representing our hope for a future as peaceful and open as a sukkah.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.