Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

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Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-25-12

Warning: this posting contains good news and positive thoughts about Israel, Jerusalem and the Middle East.

So many of the narratives about Israel are so negative, especially in the media, that we often fail to note the poetry of the everyday that comes from living in the Jewish state, or even the most mundane prose of life that shows that things are functioning. What I think of as the Great Israel Disconnect distorts: the gap between the hysterical, judgmental, apocalyptic headlines, and the calmer, happier, more meaningful experiences of most Israelis, most of the time (be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim) is confusing. As a result, some dismiss all the media jeremiads as propagandistic and jaundiced, while others dismiss any positive reports as propagandistic and deceitful.

 

Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism's most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)
Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)

 

In the few hours before Yom Kippur begins in Jerusalem, it is worth contemplating the magic of that day in the Jewish State, as an indicator of many of Israel’s greatest successes. For starters, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is not really just one “yom” day—despite its name. It is the culmination of a 40-day process that begins as the last month of the year, Elul, begins. Especially in Jerusalem, there is a flowering of Jewish learning as people study texts about forgiveness, piety, the power of prayer, the meaning of life. In the Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) tradition, there are additional “Slichot” forgiveness prayers for an entire month—with some waking up at midnight or at 4 am to recite them; in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition those prayers only begin a week before the Jewish New Year. This week, I had the privilege of participating in Slichot prayers at midnight at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys, which my two sons attend. Experiencing the mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic prayers and rituals was incredibly moving, offering a counternarrative of communal respect and interweaving contradicting the usual focus on ethnic gaps and communal tensions.

Similarly, during a pre-Yom Kippur jog through the Old City, I witnessed a very different Jerusalem than the one I usually read about. I always tell visitors to the city never to walk alone in the Old City. That is a historical spur, not a safety warning. “Walk with someone on your shoulder,” I like to say. “It can be David or Solomon, the kings who built the city, Jesus or Mary for our Christian friends, or an ancestor or relative who never made it here—and whom you are now representing.” In fact, the real hazards I faced—as usual in my jogs—were slippery steps, rocky roads and the occasional bicyclist. In hundreds of jogs through the Old City over more than five years, I have never witnessed an argument, never tasted fear (despite being a hyper-aware and cautious native New Yorker). The only clash I have ever experienced occurred when a young Arab cyclist and I each turned a blind corner and nearly collided. Instead, we ended up in an awkward (but manly!) hug. I like to think of that as a metaphor for what we could achieve, rather than the collisions that we more frequently read about.

As I jog through the Old City, I always imagine myself a human thread, weaving together the past and the present, uniting the different communities, as I traverse a borderless entity. I am neither deaf to Palestinian cries for national fulfillment nor numb to the occasional tensions and pressing issues. But I also see a calm, a functionality, a vitality that is equally palpable, and in fact defines the experiences of most Jerusalemites, which is why the population keeps growing and demands for Israeli citizenship papers from the Eastern (Palestinian) Jerusalem side grow too.

Finally, as Yom Kippur itself begins, I will see—as I have seen repeatedly before—a tremendous display of Jewish unity. Israel turns into one vast spiritual retreat center, as by custom not law cars disappear from the streets, and a deep, elevating spiritual quiet envelops the country. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “approximately two-thirds of Jewish Israelis will fast this Yom Kippur and over 80 percent will use the day either to pray or for general introspection,” blurring the usual distinctions between religious and non-religious. The highlight for many of us in Southern Jerusalem will be the post-Kol Nidre Emek Refaim promenade. After the evening prayers, hundreds of Jerusalemites descend on Emek Refaim, the increasingly fashionable shopping and restaurant boulevard. In a modern equivalent of the Easter Parade, they simply walk—or bicycle—up and down, greeting neighbors and friends, enjoying the liberation from the noise of cars, the burdens of work, and the compulsions of the clock. And—judging by the array of clothing (mostly but not exclusively white) and the happy cyclists pedaling up and down—this is a mix of Israelis, of observant and non-observant, just enjoying the magic.

The Yom Kippur repentance ritual demands that we reconcile with our fellow human beings before we reconcile with God. Note that we are supposed to make our peace with all humans, not just Jews. In toasting the Jerusalem I see—which so frequently unites  Ashkenazic and Separdic, Muslim and Jew, religious and secular, simply in the act of being safe, happy and productive in Israel 2012—I pray that the normalcy I experience will become epidemic and standard, that the reconciliation required will be among peoples not just individuals, and that the only clashes we have next year will end, as mine did, in an awkward (but manly!) embrace.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.