A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

WHERE DO WE KEEP SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!

The Difficulty of God-talk

We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human.  We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)

For those for whom God-language is difficult or a barrier to good spiritual work, I’m offering a post I originally published last summer on the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog. How you fit this into your Yom Kippur reflections is up to you. Just remember that metaphors are only that – metaphors. The quest itself, the quest for holiness — that’s real.

Godzilla

Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God.  Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.

A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.

I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.

The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”

Torah is the process of Jews reaching toward the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. Our tradition warns again and again against falling in love with mere images. It is fierce about idolatry, in which human beings invest an object with the power or priority of the Great Mystery.

Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed  “Godzilla.”

As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.

Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur

A dinner table with wooden chairs in a living ...
On Yom Kippur, no dishes to wash. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This coming Tuesday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of the ways Jews observe the day is by fasting. Here are some quick facts and tips for the day.

What exactly does “fast” mean? In common parlance, “fast” can mean just about anything. For observant Jews on Yom Kippur, it means refraining from these five activities for 24 hours:

  1. Eating & Drinking (yes, including water)
  2. Sex
  3. Anointing (using lotions or cosmetics)
  4. Washing
  5. Wearing leather shoes

Do all Jews refrain from all of these things? No. For the majority of American Jews, it means refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The last three items are less common, but are officially commanded for the day. If you are unsure about what goes on in your congregation, check with your rabbi.

What about sick people and children? Sick people are commanded NOT to fast. If you need food to take prescribed medication, or food for any other medical reason, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat as advised by your doctor. Children under 13 do not fast, but might observe the day by eating less or having a day without treats of any kind. Pregnant women do not fast. If you need to eat or drink on Yom Kippur, it is kinder to do it discreetly out of sight of those fasting.

Isn’t it unhealthy to go without food or water for 24 hours? A healthy person should be able to complete the fast. Those who are sick, pregnant, or underage should not fast. It is uncomfortable to fast, but not fatal unless you have a medical condition that precludes fasting.

Some tips for minimizing discomfort on Yom Kippur:

  • Eat a good meal before the fast, including protein and fat.
  • Do not eat very salty things for 24 hours before the fast.
  • Drink plenty of water before the fast, more than usual. If you are wondering how much water you should drink daily check out the Mayo Clinic recommendations.
  • If you get caffeine headaches, taper off your caffeine use for the month before Yom Kippur. If it’s too late for that, have a little caffeine at the meal before Yom Kippur if it will not interfere with your sleep.
  • Stay away from places with food during the fast. One advantage to spending the day at synagogue is that everyone there is in the same boat.
  • If you get a dry mouth, use this old cantor’s trick: gently bite the inside of your cheek. That will make saliva flow.
  • When the fast ends, hydrate first. Then get something light to eat. “Break-the-fast” should not be “break-the-belt.”
  • Decide ahead of time why you are fasting, and when you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself about it. Because it is commanded? In solidarity with other Jews? As a way of expressing sorrow for misdeeds? Because there are people for whom every day is a hungry day? All are good reasons to participate.

Two things you can wish a Jew who is fasting:

“Tzom KaSHER”  “A kosher fast” – wishing them a fast with no mistakes

“Tzom Kal” – “An easy fast” – wishing them an easy time of it. (Occasionally someone may tell you that it shouldn’t be an easy fast. However, the commandment is to fast, not to suffer. If they feel they get benefit out of the suffering, that’s fine for them. You did not say anything wrong. Next year wish that person a tzom kasher.)

Justice, Justice Part Two

Unidentified Korean War veteran, Freeport, New...
Unidentified Korean War veteran, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Justice, justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

 

This past month I helped out a friend and his parents, Joe and Hideko. He needed to be out of town, and his elderly parents, who live on their own, needed someone to watch over them and do grocery shopping. August is my least busy time of year, and I genuinely like his parents: no problem!

 

The day after Dave (I’ve changed all the names) left town, his dad took three falls and complained of dizziness and a headache.  I bundled the couple into my car and off we went to the emergency room nearest their home, as instructed on Dave’s “In case of emergency” instructions.  Good news: no injuries, and no stroke in progress (my big fear.) The doc said, casually, “Be sure and get him an appointment with his VA doc this coming week.”

 

It seemed so simple: I had a number to call for his doc, and I called it. The person answering the phone said they’d call me back with an appointment.

 

Days passed.  Three days.  I began to get nervous. Joe began to fret. I called again.

 

We had the same conversation, and I was told they’d call back.  “Ahh, wait a minute!” I said, “That’s what they told us last time.  WHEN are you going to call back?” “Oh, sorry that happened, ma’am, within an hour.”

 

Two hours pass. My blood pressure is rising.  I phoned back.

 

This routine continued during office hours for a WEEK. I talked with a different person each time. Some of them lectured me on “procedure” and got downright nasty when I suggested that I no longer believed in callbacks. One seemed sympathetic, and assured me that “the doctor will call tomorrow.” Whew!

 

No callback.

 

Then, out of the blue, we got a call from the VA, a doctor’s office, no less, but it was an office calling to set up in-home visits (which my friend had been trying to set up for Joe before he left town.) The nurse (a nurse!) on the other end of the line was very apologetic, but also VERY FIRM that I had to get Joe to the doc soon. I assured her I’d love to, but how?

 

She said we could just go to the walk-in outpatient clinic in Oakland.  No one else had mentioned it.

 

So, the next business day, I bundle the couple into the car (this time with my partner in tow, because I’d learned that these two intrepid elders tended to wander in opposite directions in public places.) We got to the second floor of the building in Oakland and walked into a mob scene.

 

Lines and lines of men (mostly men) waiting to talk to someone. There was a line for people with appointments (I wanted to ask them all, how DID you get those?) and a line for people with no appointments. Joe and I got in that line. Hideko and Linda sat in the chairs.  We were only the second in line; I figured we’d gotten our first break.

 

This eighty-something gentleman, veteran of three wars — WWII, Korea, and Vietname — and I stood in the line for thirty minutes.  This gave me time to observe the room. The person handling our line seemed to spend most of his time staring at a computer screen and shaking his head. All around us there were vets, many of them elderly, and most of them, judging from their clothing, not well off financially. They  interviewed one another about the wars they’d been in (WWII? Korea? Nam? Desert Storm? Iraq? Afghanistan?). They waited, patiently.

 

Finally we got to the head of our line. At Joe’s request (his hearing is so poor that communication is difficult,) I explained to the guy behind the counter what the nurse had said: Joe needs to see a doc, and soon. He shook his head.

 

“No can do. You need to call for an appointment.” I explained that we’d already tried that, that the nurse said he could come to the outpatient clinic.

 

“This is an outpatient clinic,” he said, talking slowly, as if I were perhaps not quite bright, “For a post-hospital-discharge visit, you need an appointment.”  Then because I continued standing there, silent, trying to keep a grip on my temper, he said, “Why don’t you go over to the guy in the other line and talk with him?” He pointed us to the line that was marked clearly, “Only enter this line if you have an appointment.”

 

I looked at Joe.  Joe looked at me. We walked over to the other desk. That fellow immediately waved us off. “This is for people with appointments.”

 

“Have some mercy!” I said, loudly, “We’ve been phoning for a week!”  I marched up to the counter, past the line of guys waiting and stood at that counter. Joe stood next to me. I riveted my gaze on the guy behind the desk.  “I have to get this veteran to Dr. Marcetti. The nurse said so.  A doctor said so. And I don’t know what else to do, so I’m just going to stand here.”

 

There was a little silence.  He typed at his computer some more. He tore something off the printer.

 

“Here’s an appointment for next Monday.”

 

 

Now, what I want to know is, why do we treat veterans this way? Joe was trembling from standing so long (I was trembling from holding my temper.) This is a man who spent most of his eighty two years serving this country. He’s the veteran of multiple wars. His wife followed him around the globe; they’d lived the peripatetic life of military people. THIS is their reward?

 

I hear from Dave that things have actually gotten better in the last few years. The Obama Administration has reinstated some veteran services that were eliminated or curtailed during the Bush years.  That fact left me speechless.  This is better?

 

Justice, justice shall you pursue. 

 

I ask you, where is the justice for men and women who come home broken and hurt? Where is the justice for those who devote their lives to our protection and care? If you call the VA asking for justice, well, just know that no one ever calls back.

 

 

Justice, Justice, Part One

English: Logo of the .
Food Stamps, if you can get them, will provide $31.50 a week. After that, it’s time to go find a line for the Food Bank. Can you live on $31.50 a week for food – indefinitely?

Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.

One was this morning.  I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.

My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”

The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up.  I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.

That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.

Justice, justice you will pursue.

Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.

New Year, New Classes

We are now in the midst of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.  It’s a time of serious spiritual work.  It’s also, for many of us, a time of getting ready for the fall activities that will begin after the holidays are past.

I’m preparing for these fall classes in the San Francisco Bay Area now:

Exploring Judaism – This “Intro to Judaism” class meets on Sunday mornings from 10:10 to 11:10am at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. It’s a year long course, but you can sign up for shorter parts of the class, too.  Non-members are welcome. For more information including registration arrangements, check out the class description on the Temple Isaiah website.

Intro to the Jewish Experience (aka Jewish Foundations) – a Lehrhaus Judaica course for newcomers and others who are interested in getting the basics about Judaism in the context of a class community.  We’ll meet on Wednesdays from 7:30 – 9pm at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.  You can learn more and register on the class page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. Begins Oct 17.

Homer & Moses, Poets of their People – a Lehrhaus Judaica course for theater lovers (or Torah lovers!) who are interested in exploring two ancient blockbusters, the Iliad and the Torah via lectures by a classics teacher and a rabbi (yours truly) and a performance of the Iliad at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.  Why do we love the Iliad so much? What is it about the Torah that captures the imagination? You can learn more and register for the three-session class on the class page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. Begins Oct 18.

I wish you a sweet and happy year of learning!

 

Good and Evil

Random Crazy Hat Girl!!
Photo credit: rileyroxx

We learned it as kids: Good has the white hat, Evil the black hat. But along comes some nut in an orange and yellow sombrero, and the whole thing falls apart.

Perhaps the answer is for me to quit checking out other people’s hats and look quietly inside my own heart for a while.