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October 2nd, 2012

All About Sukkot: Stars Should be Visible Through the Roof

Yesterday I was asked at least five times by different groups of Lubavitch men: "Are you Jewish?" Each time I said "No" and they seemed to believe me. Surprisingly, they didn’t seem to flinch at all when I said: "No."

As a kid in a secular Jewish family, I loved the idea of Sukkot. I knew what it was even though my Jewish education was somewhat spotty. Building a Sukkah, a make-shift structure, out of branches, leaves, shrubs, and straw seemed so cool. Who wouldn’t want to create a beautiful little playhouse in the courtyard of our apartment building or in Riverside Park.

In Park Slope, you  can spot more than a few sukkahs around the neighborhood. There's one at Chai Tots on the corner of Prospect Park West and a very architectural one in front of Congregation Beth Elohim (pictured is last year's sukkah).

The men from an extremely evangelical wing of Hasidic Judaism, the Lubavitch sect, are out in droves in their dark suits trying to pursuade Jews to shake the lulav.

Most of the Jews I know have figured out a usable response to the question from the men on the street. One friend says: "Yes I’m Jewish but I already shook the lulav today."  Another friend says: "Yeah, I’m Jewish and please leave me alone."

Lubavitch Hasidism is an international movement with headquarters in Brooklyn. They're intent on converting other Jews to the Torah way of life and operate an extensive outreach effort to encourage a return to traditional practices. Their Mitzvah Tanks are a frequent sight in New York City.

My "Just Say No" tactic makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like to deny my heritage or hide who I am. We didn’t survive the holocaust to lie to other Jews on Seventh Avenue about our identities. But it’s a quick and easy way to be left alone. My irritation almost made me forget the way I used to marvel at this holiday. And it got me thinking about what the holiday is all about.

When I got home, I sat down at the computer and in five  seconds flat I arrived at Judaism 101 and got the answers I was looking for. (I hear there’s also something called for just these kind of questions.) I’ve also got the book I bought my son for his 13th birthday: "The Jewish Book of Why," which is chock full of interesting Jewish religious facts. So here goes:

A lulav consists of fours species: a lemon,  a palm branch (in Hebrew, lulav), two willow branches, and three myrtle branches.

The lulav must be waved in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down), symbolizing the fact that God is everywhere. This ritual is a key element of Sukkot, also known as the feast of the tabernacles, which begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. Unlike Yom Kippur, which is one of the most most solemn days of the year, Sukkot is a joyful holiday and sometimes referred to as the season of rejoicing.

Sukkot has historical and agricultural significance. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the Jews were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. But it is also a harvest festival, a celebration of nature’s bounty.

A Sukkah means literally a booth and it refers to the make-shift dwelling Jews are  commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering. The Hebrew pronouciation of Sukkot is "Sue COAT." But the pronuciation I grew up with is the Yiddish one which rhymes with "BOOK us."

Sukkot lasts for seven days. I didn’t know this, but no work is permitted on the first and second day of the holiday. That explains why there was no traffic on Coney Island Avenue this morning. Flatbush Yeshiva was closed and there were no Yeshival school buses clogging up the street. Work is allowed  on the other days of the holiday.

The key to Sukkah construction is that it must be "hastily assembled" like those temporary structrures the wandering Jews created in the desert. It must have at least two and
half walls covered with a material that will not be blown by the wind.
The roof must be covered with tree branches, or other natural materials. These materials  must be left loose, not tied together or tied down.

Stars should be visible through the roof.

Even as I admire this beautiful ritual, I feel no real connection with it. It wasn’t part of my family tradition nor does it answer any kind of spiritual longing on my part. But as a  symbol of the Jew’s plight of marginality (what Hannah Arendt would call "the Jew as pariah") throughout history: the wandering Jew, the Other, it resonates with me.

While learning about Sukkot is enormously interesting, I am very uncomfortable with the  evangelical aspect of Lubavitch Hasidism. Having very strong beliefs is one thing but why must they insist on trying to persuade others to have the same beliefs? It all  seems somewhat unJewish to me. What I like most about Judaism is the many ways there are to be a Jew: secular, athiest, intellectual, cultural, political, reform, conservative, orthodox and  Hasidic, kabbalistic: there are many ways to express one’s Judaism. Why is it necessary for ultra-religious Jews to try to make other kinds of Jews more religious. Why can’t they just let us be.

It seems to me that this sort of evangelism has caused enough trouble. It’s bullyish, highly annoying, and dangerous spiritually and politically. If I want to shake a lulav I will shake it in my own way, in my own time. I don’t want to feel pressured, I don’t want my Judaism questioned on the street, I don’t want to have to express my Judaism the same way you do.

That's just how I feel.

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