What’s a Sukkah?

October 7, 2014
A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A sukkah (soo-KAH or SUK-kah)  is a small temporary structure Jews build to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It is often translated “booth” but might better be translated as “shelter.” In the ancient Near East (and in some places, even today) farmworkers built these little shelters for the hurried end of the harvest, when it would take too much valuable daylight to travel home from the field every day. For Jews, the sukkah also is a reminder of the time when we were wanderers on the road from Egypt to Israel.

A proper sukkah is a temporary structure. Its roof is partially covered with greenery (ideally tree branches) but open enough that one can still see the stars on a clear night. The sukkah should be large enough for at least one person to sit in it at a table, and it may not be more than 10m tall. The walls should be constructed in such a way that they will not blow over in a wind.  It is important that you acquire all the materials in a legal manner: “borrowing” greenery from a neighbor without asking (aka stealing) invalidates the mitzvah.

A sukkah can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you wish. The sukkah pictured above was built by a man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that it was built mostly of found materials; the bill came to $5. You can also purchase sukkah “kits” on the internet, which is one way to get a proper sukkah without too much worry. If you are skilled with tools, then you’ve got a head start!

Many people decorate their sukkah with carpets and wall hangings, and furnish it with a table, chairs, and even a bed! Since the mitzvah (commandment) is to “dwell” in the sukkah, it is good to eat meals and even sleep in the sukkah, weather permitting. It is especially nice to practice the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim [hospitality] by inviting others to eat in your sukkah.

What if you don’t have a yard in which to put a sukkah? In cities, people sometimes build them on balconies,  fire escapes or rooftops. (Be careful not to run afoul of local ordinances, however!) Synagogues and Jewish organizations often have a sukkah. If you sit in the sukkah of a friend or neighbor often, it is nice to offer to help them take it down at the end of the holiday; this is usually not a small job.

Sukkot is an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy nature while we share meals and conversation with family and friends. Whatever is available to you this Sukkot, be sure to get outside and enjoy the season!

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.


Sukkot’s Coming: Go Out and Play!

October 5, 2014
Decorating the Sukkah

Decorating the Sukkah

Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.” – @travelincatdoc

Sukkot was known in ancient times as THE Holiday, HeHahg. It was the biggest event of the Jewish year. That fact usually surprises American Jews, for whom the High Holidays and Passover are THE Holidays.

But in ancient times, all the observance we have just been through, the purification of body and soul, was just a warmup to the biggest holiday of all, a holiday when the Temple hosted special sacrifices and the Water Pouring Festival. During Sukkot, it was the custom to pour water over the altar in the Temple every day, and every night, the water was brought in a golden flask from the Pool of Siloah. It became a huge festival of light, too, with torches and jugglers and a joyful craziness. There is a record of a great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, who juggled eight flaming torches as part of the celebration.

What happened, then? It all changed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Without the Temple, we couldn’t do sacrifices, and the Water Pouring didn’t really make sense. We didn’t have access to the Pool of Siloah.

So all that remained of Sukkot was the ancient sukkahs, which we still build. Today Sukkot is still joyous (especially in Israel) but it has become a holiday of hospitality and a quieter kind of joy.

Our modern Sukkot may not have fire-juggling rabbis (!) but it has a wonderful sweetness. Start looking around for a sukkah: it might be at your congregation, or in the yard of a friend. Or maybe you’ll have one in your yard this year. This is our reward for the hard work of the last six weeks, our time of rejoicing.

Sukkot begins this year (2014 or 5775) on Wednesday, Oct 8, at sundown.


A Reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon

October 3, 2014

1. Eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:

The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,

The voices of my ancestors, murdered by mobs.

I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars

who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.

Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.

Akiva whose flesh was torn with iron combs.

Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.

Hutzpit the Interpreter begged to say the Shema one more day.

Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s most famous  students.

Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.

Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before he was murdered.

Judah ben Dama is known only as one of the Ten Martyrs.

Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2.  Eleh ezkerah.  These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.

“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them chose death

rather than to deny their heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.

The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.

The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.

The Jews of Blois were murdered  for the blood libel, a vicious lie.

The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower, rather than convert.

The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,

martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.    

They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.

The monarchs of Spain and the King of Portugal offered them a choice:

convert, go to exile, or die.

Many fled, some were converted by force.

Many remained secretly faithful to Torah..

Too many of them suffered at the hands of the Inquisition,

burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great congregations of Sepharad destroyed:

in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona,

in Granada, in Malaga, and in Toledo

Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more. 

The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy and medicine

scattered to the four corners of the earth,

driven underground, and burnt to death in the city centers.

Their neighbors denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. 

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid. 

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:

those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre,

at the hands of Cossacks.

I remember the slaughter of children,

I remember the destruction of families and homes.

I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn.   

The cruel choice of the past – Convert or die! – became no choice at all.

The time of martyrs gave way to an even more terrible time,

when there were no choices,

only death, only murder, only annihilation.

Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries were the scourge of humanity:

no choices.

Not only did we suffer, but other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.

And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.

Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.

Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched

Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?

There are no words, no meanings, nothing to make sense of it.

The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,

burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.

What can we say about the loss of Jewish families, Jewish minds, Jewish learning?

What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?

And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.

Even today, there are those who deny that it happened.

But eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

5.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.

I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save one single Jew.

I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, and went to the camps with us.

Eleh ezkerah:  These, too, I will remember!

6.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.  These I cannot forget.

Never again!  Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.

I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.

I may not stand by while my brother is starving.

I may not stand by while anyone is made homeless.

I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!

These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!


Before Kol Nidre

October 3, 2014

The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.

I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?

The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.

As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.

So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.

My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.

 


Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration

October 1, 2014
Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.

Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.

For instance, consider these words:

יום כיפור

If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.

If I transliterate:

Yom Kippur

Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.

That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:

Yohm Kee-POOR

Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”

If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.

That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.

 

 


Yom Kippur: The Rehearsal

September 30, 2014
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

What sort of crazy people rehearse their own deaths?

Jews, that’s who.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.

One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.

I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.

What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen? 

 


Shana Tovah! and Happy Tishri!

September 29, 2014

shofar sound

In all the excitement of the New Year it is easy to lose track of the fact that it’s also a new month. Rosh HaShanah is also Rosh Chodesh Tishri, the first of the month of Tishri.

The main thing to know about Tishri is that it’s a month with many holy days: Rosh HaShanah, the Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur, followed by the week-long Feast of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. (Click the links for more info on those holidays.)

There is also a minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, which memorializes the death of a righteous governor of Judea in the years after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Read 2 Kings 25: 24-25 or Jeremiah 41 for the story.

It’s a busy month!


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