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The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

69 responses »

  1. I’m sure videotaping would be frowned upon, but I would love to see Cricket’s reaction to the Sukkah experience, especially if there are parrots, snakes and gerbils. When I was little I loved all the pomp and circumstance during Christmas and Easter, I left the church a long time ago, I carry my own church inside my heart. I’m glad you love your synogue, I think you have nothing to explain when it comes to which rituals you chose to embrace. 🙂

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  2. I think we must all take what seems right to us in whatever our religion is, and evolve as we are led by the spirit. Don’t worry, Rachel, about not embracing everything. That’s the reason I am not part of any one Christian denomination – I can’t agree with everything in any of them. I would say worship the way that seems right to you and God will hear you and honor that.

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  3. Oh, Rachel–Cricket practicing fitting things in her mouth and Cricket practicing her ‘cute’ face–I will build a sukkah just to see them next year. I think maybe we all carry some baggage from our religious background. Catholicism has some bad memories for me so I’ve not been to church in years. Yet, I love the prays and continue to say them and talk with God. Just not in His house. I can’t do it.

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  4. Rachel, I think lots of people who stay with their religious tradition can be resistant to some of the rituals and customs. Being aware of your resistance is an important first step; moving against it is important to spiritual growth.

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  5. I think back in the days when all the Israelites would go to Jerusalem on this holiday to kill bulls and stuff, they stayed in huts because the little city couldn’t hold them all. Over time, the holiday became associated with the huts, especially so once the 2nd temple was destroyed.

    From today’s perspective, it’s more than a bit odd. But one can (if needed) tug some meaning from it all. Maybe your hesitance to participate in some of the more bizarre rituals is simply because you fail (as do I) to see the meaning. Just a thought.

    Anyway, thanks for your honest and open musings.

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    • Thank you! I had to take fifteen years away from all of it to clear my head and come to it from a new perspective. All of the certainty in a Yeshiva education can be exhausting. It’s really good to hear from you.

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  6. I think it would be perfectly normal to invite dogs (and pets) in there. It is representative of home, isn’t it? Cricket might clear out all the cats, mice and snakes though

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  7. Thanks for your very thoughtful and complete description of the sukkah. It helped my understanding.

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  8. I think Butterfly struck gold with her cute face, WOOFF Benji.

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  9. Can I come? I need to meet a male parrot.

    About HOA’s, there’s one here in Arizona that won’t let you put up a Christmas wreath on your door. They probably wouldn’t let you have a sukkah. Some wonder what HOA’s are thinking but I’m wondering IF they’re thinking.

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  10. I hear you Rachel..! The complicatedness of the Jewish faith often leaves me wondering if God (if there is one) really cares about all this stuff? I am pretty sure if there is a God, that he would be fine with you worshipping whatever way feels right to you. But that’s just me of course! You need to do what is right for you. 💚

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  11. Growing up Jewish I have fond memories of Sukkot. Chag Sameach!

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  12. hairytoegardener

    This was such an interesting post. I didn’t know anything about the Sukkah, Lulav and Etrog. I agree it’s sometimes hard to find meaning in religious customs and I, too, questioned some of the rituals in my faith. I attended a Maronite Catholic Church for years and loved the reverence for God I found there. Yet, the church stubbornly ignored real life problems. It never acknowledged anything outside of convention.–You do THIS at THAT time. You followed a yearly pattern. I eventually left. Where I attend now, there are few customs/rituals others than communion. I don’t feel the peaceful and comforting reverence for God there, but I also recognize no religion/faith/denomination is perfect.

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  13. I’m reading this post as I’m having my cup of coffee in my Sukkah, thinking how I love sitting in the Sukkah because it is very relaxing to me (we don’t do all the religious mitzvot involved). Sorry to hear that your associations with Sukkah are not very pleasant. I have the opposite experience. Although I’m not a practicing Jew, and my Sukkah is not even kosher, I insist on building one every year, because of the warm memories I have from my grandparents Sukkah, and the Sukkah my father built and we decorated. Maybe it could help if you went as a guest to someone’s Sukkah (not at Temple) and have a new, better experience. That might help change your mind.

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    • When I was looking for a picture of a sukkah for the post, I saw some extraordinary ones that I would love to visit. There’s a lot to be said for going sukkah hopping and getting a taste of how other people make it work. Thank you!

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  14. Tali’s comment reminds me of how everyone has a different perspective. What one person finds relaxing, another less so.

    During the summer, in Florida, we have a thunderstorm almost every afternoon. When my sister and I were little, and the lightening/thunder storms would roll in, our mother would ritualistically begin unplugging all the electrical appliances, and she would gather us in bed and read Little Golden Books to us. To this day, I think of it every time we have a storm, and it warms my heart. I have a healthy respect for lightening, but I don’t duck and cringe every time there is a flash of lightening in the sky. For me, it’s a good memory.

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  15. I’m not sure what the Jewish version might be called but you sound a lot like a “Cafeteria Catholic”, which I am one of and have been for my entire adult life. I’ve never felt guilty about it rationalizing to some degree that God makes us who we are and loves us all no matter what.

    On a lighter note, Cricket is a very talented piker-upper with that mouthful of sticks. Quite impressive. And Butterfly is beyond adorable! Great photos…

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  16. “I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past.” I love this! When I was “growing up Catholic” I didn’t like the stand up, sit down, and all that either. Very structured the Catholics lol. These days my “no labels” approach makes moving with the spirit as it moves me so much easier and free. Thank you for sharing this – I love reading about others experiences and spiritual paths. Love to you!

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  17. In our two patriarchal religions (Judaism and Mormonism) it can get overwhelming for a ‘modern’ female to blindly follow all the ‘rules’ that some old guy hundreds of years ago set up. That other men (not women) have maybe adjusted to suit themselves. I struggle a lot with some of the ideology of being LDS and what MEN tell me is proper for a woman (they aren’t women, they can’t know what I know same as I can’t fully understand them..not being a man). I’ve found that embracing my relationship with God and listening to HIM is the main thing and the religion and ‘rules’ that are made up down on earth here are less important. Someone should set up a new church … a church where everyone has a say about things..and where dogs are always welcome. I suspect that would be closer to God and His wisdom than anything human beings have come up with. Beautiful pictures you shared, as always. I want to cuddle them both!!

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  18. Before today, I had never heard the word “sukkah.” Lookie here, blogging makes us smarter. Well, reading your blog anyway.

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  19. Sounds wonderfully pagan to me! My Mom and her family is Jewish, although I have never considered myself so and I have never heard of this….interesting.

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  20. I remember the first time I heard about a Sukkah was when Howard Stern talked about how he and his friends used to party in a backyard Sukkah as teenagers in the 1960s. Not very respectful but must have been fun for teenage boys!

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  21. I too am a fan of magical thinking. I have hollies planted in the corners of my yard to ward off evil and chrystals in my car and house windows for the same purpose. They work quite well. Myths, magic, I have always loved. Too each her own. I too rebelled against practices of my faith, as well as some proscriptions introduced in the eighteenth century by an old fart Pope. My ancestors are rolling in their graves, maybe. I will probably go to hell. Or not.

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  22. Oh Rachel, the thought of Cricket and Butterfly attending next year just makes me laugh. It’s selfish of me but I want you three to go so you can tell us all about it in a blog post. I wish Cricket much luck in her training:) Seriously though, thanks for explaining what the Sukkah is, I had no idea. Fun post!

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  23. Interesting read! I grew up in a predominantly Jewish Orthodox neighbourhood and at this time of the year the Sukkahs would go up much to my curiosity!

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  24. After discovering through genealogy that my paternal grandmother was Jewish, I told my daughter. She and her kids built a Sukkah in the back yard here and talked about its meaning. They had a great time with no baggage since it was all new to them!

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  25. I hope you can take Cricket and Butterfly to the Sukkah next year. Very interesting read, it looks like a meaningful tradition.

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  26. Hi There! I am not Jewish but I can totally relate to the rebellious moments when it comes to religion. I have strong spiritual believes but the rituals are another thing all together. 😃 Do your thing however you want to do it!

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  27. I am a Gentile, and I cherish the Jewish heritage. But, I can empathize with your reaction to your religious heritage. You see, my daughter does the same, and may be worse, because she wouldn’t even come with me to the place of worship. But be encouraged, you have a great heritage. You may want to check out Rabbi Michael Brown on Youtube; he could put the fire back into your faith. My most recent blog, An Angel Visited Our Community Last Night, may also interest you.

    Reply

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