|by Sam Glaser
I’m going to use some Hebrew terminology below…please email me if you need translations.
Rashi, the illustrious medieval commentator, held that mitzvot performed outside of the Land of Israel should be considered mere rehearsal. This seems to me to be a fairly harsh view of the plethora of good and holy acts committed in the diaspora. In one case I must agree, however: the celebration of Sukkot. Outside of Israel we may eat in a sukkah, attend a few parties and shake lulav and etrog. In Israel, on the other hand, Sukkot is a totally overwhelming, weeklong round-the-clock rave.
Here in Pico-Robertson we average about one sukkah for every other home in a three square mile area. Our forty kosher restaurants all have sukkot attached. There’s a sukkah on top of Ralph’s supermarket. One could conceivably sukkah hop to a different hut every five minutes of the week and not exhaust the inventory. Last year a lady driving by stopped next to me and said, “what the *#$@ are you people doing with those sticks?”
We have epic parties of our own in our sukkah and have a rich tradition of potlucks with neighboring families each day. I rent out my services over the chol hamo’ed part of the week (when you can drive and play instruments, etc.) to propel revelers into previously unknown realms of joy. My kids each get their own lulav and etrog and we proudly parade every morning holding our species aloft. As a community we relish in the feeling of victory after ourassumed favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah and whitewashing on Yom Kippur. Most of us have spent nearly two months of heightened scrutiny of our
personal balance sheet and reconnection with our true purpose; our elation is heartfelt and not manufactured.
That said, Sukkot in LA, or Crown Heights or Borough Park for that matter, doesn’t hold a candle to the Homeland.
I experienced my first Sukkot in Israel in 1994, just before my brother Yom Tov’s wedding. He cleverly planned his nuptials just after the week of Sukkot, I’m convinced, to ensure that his extended family would enjoy an experience of Israel that would make the deepest impression. I had been keeping Shabbat for a few years at this point and thought I knew all I needed to know about this harvest holiday. Wrong again!
As an extended family we dined and slept in our Old City sukkah and enjoyed celebrations every night. If we weren’t praying or sleeping we were eating. For some reason, Israelis serve coke and orange soda exclusively. No water available at any party. All the cake and candy you could ever want. A dentist’s dream come true.
Yom Tov and I spent a few nights of the midweek Sukkot “Simcha Bet Hasho’eva” celebrations visiting the various yeshivot in Me’ah She’arim. On one of the nights we came armed with guitars and played for anyone who would listen. We sang several of the key Sukkot melodies over and over in the main town square, creating a spontaneous circle of dancers and singers. Many children were surrounding us and gawking. I overheard a few of them stating that I must be a Nazir (one who allows his hair to grow long in order to have the closest connection with G-d.)
A chassid with a mangy shtreimel, ragged beard and graying peyot circled me while scrutinizing my every square inch. As if I didn’t feel like a turd in a punchbowl already! He seemed to be fascinated by my beardless face and long hair and yet I knew all the Hebrew lyrics and was wearing tzitzit. He finally blurted out: “Ata Yehudi!?” (Are you a Jew!?) I stopped singing and replied that yes, as far as I know I’m a Jew. Before wandering off he muttered, “we’ll see.”
Around midnight we stashed our guitars and went to the largest yeshivot to dance. Each place was crammed with a clone army of marchers, in lock step to the reverb drenched, deafening electric klezmer. The dance was more like a circular lemming parade, reaching occasional climaxes when a favorite song would make everyone start jumping in place. The sinks had been rigged to serve red kool aid (yes, I’m serious.) My size 13 ½ feet were battered from being stomped on and my ears ringing because the guys wouldn’t let go of my hands when we passed by the speakers.
Around 3:00am, after a full three hours of marching, Yom Tov and I passed out on a table in the cavernous hundred-yard-long Toldos Aharon sukkah. When I asked, “now where do we go?” he replied, “well, there’s only one place that’s still happening, but it’s in the middle of the Arab Quarter.” I have an ill-advised policy that if we want the land we have to walk the land, without fear. Yom Tov and I strolled down the now eerily quiet, littered streets armed only with our guitars. Down a half mile of cobblestone steps and there we were at Shuva Bonim, the Old City Breslov yeshiva.
Who decided on this location? You couldn’t imagine more hostile neighbors on every side. I found out that this was the Ba’al Teshuva Breslov yeshiva and was inhabited in a large part by Israeli toughs who had found the Lord. These were big guys. Scary neighborhoods didn’t phase them for a minute.
When we walked in they were sprinting as a group around the imposing bookcase in the middle of the main room. We joined the throng running in time to the music until we found that some of the guys were waiting around the corner like the defensive front line of a football team. Everyone went tumbling and then after finding their way free from the dog pile, resumed the jog/dance until the blockers decided to set up their line of defense again.
At one point I spied the skinny chassid out of the corner of my eye. That very guy who seven hours earlier asked if I was Jewish. I approached him to wish him a chag sameach and he immediately hugged me and laughed saying, “ken, ata Yehudi!” (Yes, you are Jewish!) He then ripped off his long white coat and motioned that I should put it on. While I did he balanced his furry shtreimel on my head and then LIFTED me up on his shoulders. Me! All 6’3 of me. And he was a skinny five foot something middle-aged yeshiva guy! Next thing I knew I was at the vortex of the frantic dancing, on this guy’s shoulders with my arms outstretched to heaven.
Just before 5:00 am the band abruptly stopped and the whole group donned their talleisim and faced the rising sun for the morning service. Looking out the windows I could see the interplay of the orange light reflecting off the stones of the Temple Mount. With my last ounce of strength I prayed with these chassidim, thanking the Creator for the gift of my crazy little brother and the chance to have an unforgettable Sukkot experience where it really counts, in the Promised Land.