Tabarnak! It's Almost Sukkot

The season of joy comes around again, and makes me wistful

An engraving of a sukkah by Paul Christian Kirchner, published in 1717

Feels like there’s been a lot of Jewish material around here lately, doesn’t it? Well, that’s mostly just the season. Tishrei is the month of holidays, with Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) followed by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) followed by Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (um . . .). It’s in my life, so it’s on my mind, so it’s in these virtual pages.

Sukkot begins this evening, and that holiday—“the season of our joy”—is both my favorite of the whole calendar and a source of wistful sadness for me. I love Sukkot for a whole array of reasons. I love that it is one of the most pagan-feeling festivals, centered on the sympathetic magic of shaking palm fronds to bring the rain (because shaking them makes a sound like rainfall). Rabbinic Judaism can be both so rationalist and so moralist that I delight in rituals that wriggle free of that nexus. I love that it’s also one of the most universalist festivals, one that, in ancient times, was explicitly open to non-Israelite participation in the sacrifices (unlike the Passover sacrifice, which was exclusive to Israelites). I think that’s connected with the fact that, unlike the other major festivals as well as the various minor holidays, Sukkot doesn’t commemorate a historical event (as Passover does the exodus from Egypt, or Shavuot (Pentecost) does the giving of the Torah; as Hanukkah celebrates the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Empire or Tisha B’Av mourns the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire and the second by the Roman Empire). Rather, it recalls a state of being that is poised on the brink of history (or of its end): wandering in the wilderness, depending on manna for sustenance, waiting for the moment of entry into the Land of Israel. That mix of acute vulnerability and anticipatory joy is pretty much what the experience of religion is all about, from where I sit.

All of those strands come together in the sukkah itself, a makeshift structure with no proper roof (the greenery that partly covers it is supposed to let in half the starlight) and flimsy walls, in which traditionally you not only take your meals but sleep. You’re supposed to decorate this hut beautifully—Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday I’m aware of where beautification is a specifically commanded—and building and decorating is a great project for kids. And you’re also supposed to invite friends and strangers in (as well as the spirits of Abraham, Moses, David, etc.) to join in the festivities. A sukkah should be like a Jewish Christmas tree, but a Christmas tree that you get to sit inside of with all of your family and friends, whatever their religious tradition (if any). I’ve wanted one my whole life—but I’ve barely ever had one.

The first sukkah I built was in the backyard of our home when my wife and I were living in Rochester. I followed the instructions in the Jewish Catalog, and the thing stayed up for maybe a minute and a half before collapsing. Instead of just buying a kit, which I did do years later, I got spooked and stuck with visiting other friends’ sukkahs for the rest of the time we lived there. Then, when we moved to New York, we took up residence in an apartment building with no deck or roof access and no communal outdoor space in which to situate a sukkah. We did convince the board to let us put one up (from a kit) in the building’s “courtyard,” but that name is a misnomer; it’s really the garbage area, and sitting there never felt particularly festive. For a couple of years we were invited by neighbors across the street to set our sukkah up on the roof of their brownstone, but it was awkward arranging to come to their house whenever we wanted to use our sukkah, and the second year we did it a windstorm grabbed the structure and threw it against their house, damaging their screen door along with one of the sukkah’s struts. We were mortified, a never erected a sukkah again.

Instead, we’re vagabonds on the holiday, depending on the kindness of friends (or, occasionally, strangers) to host us. Which has its own joys, of course. But I love to host, and I do so all year round, so I would love to have the ability to do so on a holiday that is all about extending welcome.

I’m curious what the holiday is going to feel like this year, after more than a year of eating outside and feeling especially vulnerable. Walk around Brooklyn these days and every corner has structures that could be mistaken for sukkahs if you didn’t know about outdoor dining.

Will that make everything feel more ordinary, less distinct from the rest of the year? Or will it bring the holiday’s themes home even more forcefully? I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

As it is my favorite holiday, Sukkot is a subject I’ve also written about a bunch already. So I thought I’d end this note by sharing a handful of other writings of mine relevant to the season.

The Prince and the Preacher

My most recent piece just came out today, in the Jewish Review of Books. It’s an essay about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read in synagogue on the morning of the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot. This is part of a series of essays that I’ve been writing on Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible, which I intend to adapt into a book on the subject.

Here’s how this one begins:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” Kohelet says (Eccles. 3:1). There is probably no more familiar verse from the biblical text that we read at this particular season, on the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, as the life-sustaining rains begin in the Land of Israel and, in the lands of Ashkenaz, the exuberant notes of Hallel segue into autumn’s dying fall. It’s a puzzling choice of text because the text itself is puzzling, full of apparent contradictions. These contradictions are, in turn, reflected in rabbinic attempts to understand the tradition of reading Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. Thus, we find the great sixteenth-century rabbi Mordechai Yaffe arguing that we read it during Sukkot because it exhorts us to rejoice in the portion that God granted us in the season of our joy—“There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labour. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God” (Eccles. 2:24). Yet his younger contemporary Azaryah Figo argued precisely the opposite: we read this particular book on Sukkot to remind us of our own mortality—“It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccles. 7:2). Ecclesiastes contains sublime and moving poetry, but it cannot seem to make up its mind.

When I reread it recently, though, what struck me immediately was how much it has in common with another canonical text with sublime and moving poetry about a man who cannot make up his mind. Consider:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (Hamlet, act 1, scene 2, lines 133–34)

Were they not written in iambic pentameter, I wonder whether anyone could tell if the speaker were the Danish prince or the Israelite preacher.

Over and over in Shakespeare’s peculiar tragedy, his title character echoes the themes and tropes of one of the most peculiar books in the Hebrew Bible. Even Shakespeare’s word choices resonate better with the original Hebrew than with the biblical text that Shakespeare knew. “Mah yitron la-adam be-chol amalo” (Eccles. 1:3) is rendered by the 1917 JPS translation as “What profit hath a man of all his labor?” The Geneva Bible of Shakespeare’s day renders the same verse as “What remaineth unto man in all his travail.” The Geneva Bible renders “kol ha-d’varim y’gei’im: lo yuchal ish le-dabeir” (Eccles. 1:8) as “All things are full of labor: man cannot utter it,” which scholar Michael V. Fox persuasively argues should be translated as something like: “All words are wearisome: man cannot speak.” The modern translations of Ecclesiastes sound more like Hamlet than Shakespeare’s Bible did.

When I realized this, I compiled a collection of plausible cross-references between Hamletand Ecclesiastes so easily that I had to stop and ask myself the profit of this labor. The comparisons are striking. Hamlet’s death wish—“’tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wish’d,” (Hamlet 3.1.62–63)—his inability to feel pleasure—“I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth” (Hamlet, 2.2.261–262)—his misogyny—“frailty, thy name is woman!” (Hamlet, 1.2.146)—all find their echo in Ecclesiastes (or vice versa). On the other hand, Hamlet was a brooding and melancholic youth who would naturally be drawn to feelings of futility that Ecclesiastes expressed. Is there anything more to the comparison?

I think there is. It may be folly to try to say anything new about Hamlet, quite possibly the most studied text in the English language, but as both works tell us, the wise man and the fool come to the same end anyway. The more I read Ecclesiastes through the lens of Hamlet, the more the book came into focus, not as the work of traditional wisdom literature that it initially seems to be but as a work that shows both traditional wisdom literature and the new discipline of philosophy to have failed. Perhaps even more surprising, Hamlet (and Rashi) showed me a way to read Ecclesiastes as more than a collection of beautiful but unconnected sayings. It helped me to read it as a coherent and moving narrative in its own right.

As they say: read the whole thing.

Losing My Religion

The piece I probably return to more often than any other on this subject is one I wrote eight years ago, around the time I was directing my first short film. As things worked out, I wound up directing it during Sukkot, and this threw up all sorts of feelings about my falling away from a more rigorous observance that still feel pertinent, if much less acute. As it happens, I’m working on getting the first feature film that I would direct off the ground right now, so those feelings feel even more pertinent this year than they usually do.

Here’s how that one begins:

One of the other and somewhat unexpected stresses associated with shooting my film was the decision to shoot last week, because last week was the tail end of the holiday of Sukkoth. It was my decision to shoot then – I didn’t want to schedule the shoot so far into the fall that, if we had a spell of rain, we’d lose the film due to shortening days and chilling weather – and I went into the decision understanding that it would mean foreshortening my holiday. But, I reasoned with myself, I’ve been getting progressively less religious. We don’t have a sukkah of our own (we live in an apartment, and there’s no really useable outdoor common space associated therewith). My son’s now in a non-sectarian school, so he won’t have off for the holiday. What’s the big deal?

Well, turned out to be a bigger deal than I anticipated. Sukkoth is always a holiday that pulls at my heartstrings. We never much celebrated it  as a kid, so it’s not nostalgia – it’s the opposite: a longing for something that I never really experienced. And for all that I have turned away from trying to live a traditionally religious life, that longing hasn’t gone away, apparently.

I go on to talk about the holiday in general, and its meaning for me, before landing on how the experience shooting the film during the holiday made me feel like I was divided against myself:

Back when I worked on Wall Street, I made a very conscious effort to keep the demands of the world at bay – to prioritize my Jewish obligations over all. This was probably a good way of keeping work in its proper place – a hunger for money will devour people who let themselves be devoured – but it created other, more destructive tensions, particularly within my family, who didn’t always share these particular priorities. I was identifying myself with a set of obligations to something, ultimately, external to me, and I’m not sure it’s really any better if those obligations are to an abstractly-conceived religion than if they are to Mammon. Now, the conflict I experience is genuinely internal. It’s not between external demands on me that I choose to conform to or resist, but between the longing to impress myself upon the world and the longing to dwell within it without care.

Once again, I encourage you to read the whole thing.

And if you are interested in seeing the film I shot that year, here it is:

Off, Off You Lendings!

This isn’t strictly speaking a Sukkot-related piece, but I’m including it here for two reasons. First, it’s a write-up of a production of a play called “Hosanna,” and one observance of Sukkot is to sing hoshanot (hosannas) while marching around the synagogue in a parade while shaking our lulavim (palm fronds), and the piece starts with a bit of an etymological dive:

The word, “Hosanna” is actually two words from biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: “hosha” (that’s Aramaic; the biblical Hebrew would be “hoshiah”) which is the imperative form of the verb “to save” or “to redeem”  (i.e.: “save!” or “redeem!”) and the word “na,” which is a term indicating a request of a superior like “please” or “I pray” or “I beg of you.” It is, in other words, a desperate cry for salvation from the divine.

In practical modern usage, a “hosanna” is a cry of praise of the divine. That is to say: it isn’t something you say, it’s the term for such cries. To describe a bunch of people shouting “hallelujah!” and “praise Jesus!” you would say they “shouted hosannas.”

The transformation of the term derives, I would assume, from the prominent placement of the cry “hoshiah na” in the Jewish hallel prayer; the Aramaic “hosha na” shows up prominently in the concluding prayer of the Sukkoth or Tabernacles morning service; it’s also part of the name of the holiday that ends the festival of Sukkoth: Hoshanna Rabba or “great hoshanna”. The hallel is a series of hymns of praise to the divine (that’s that “hallel” means: praise, laud, extol) sung on various festivals. Jewish prayer being strikingly petitionary in character relative to other monotheistic liturgies, this praise cycle climaxes with the call-and-response cry “save us! prosper us!” Christian liturgy having a less-petitionary character, it’s not surprising that the cry for help became more a declaration of faith; rather than “redeem us!” it meant, effectively, “our redeemer!” And from there it’s a short distance to being a descriptive term for shouts of ecstatic praise for the divine.

But second, the play is actually about a Quebecois drag queen (whose name is also the play’s title), and I wanted to connect back to the title of this piece. “Tabarnak” is a blasphemous Quebecois curse, derived from the word “tabernacle.” In Israelite religion, the Tabernacle was the tent within which the Ark of the Covenant was stored, upon which the cloud would descend when Moses was to go in and receive a revelation. For Catholics, meanwhile, the tabernacle is the box within which the Eucharist is housed, which, given that the Eucharist is supposed to be the actual body of Jesus, is a pretty direct parallel to the idea of of Israelite Tabernacle as a physical space in which God’s presence can reside.

I don’t actually know why Sukkot is also called the Feast of Tabernacles in English, but the notion of connecting the flimsy shelters of Sukkot with a home for the divine is deeply felicitous to me, and I my write-up of the play ends on a note that brings those themes back into contact as well.

Once again: I hope you’ll read the whole thing.