These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 7: Sukkot

Posted on October 25, 2011 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

We had all of Sukkot off, plus 3 days, making for 2 weeks of free time. Many of my peers went on trips through the country of went camping. While I didn’t do either of those, I had an adventurous holiday nonetheless.
The adventure started before Sukkot when I bought my first-ever lulav and etrog. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become so pious, it’s just that the whole kit is SO much cheaper here–I got the whole package, including carrying case and myrtle and willow holders, for less than $20 USD–in America, you can’t even get a good etrog for that much.

My lulav and etrog in our sukkah

The first night of Sukkot, I went to Yedidya for services then went back home, not really having any plans for a meal. As I stood alone outside my apartment contemplating what to do, a neighbor of mine, whom I never saw nor met before, invited me into his sukkah for a meal. As I followed him into his sukkah pretending to protest, I discovered an absolute smorgasbord, way more than just he and his mother would need– stacked Tupperware containers filled with two kinds of homemade borekas, beans and rice, chicken, homemade challah…as I chewed the host told me his mother once won second-place in a major Israeli cooking contest. It wasn’t hard to understand why. The quality of the food matched the quality of the company and conversation. This–fullness, kindness, neighborliness–is the essence of Sukkot and these themes repeated themselves in nearly all my experiences during the holiday: On Shabbat Chol HaMoed, I ate with host families from Yedidya and Shira Hadasha who likewise very much understood the point of the holiday.

Sunday, I went with a bunch of other Pardes students on the Alex Singer Hike. Alex Singer (don’t miss the Hagada) was an American who made alyiah in the ’80’s, joined the Army, and was killed in Lebanon by terrorists in 1987, leaving behind his beautiful letters and drawings, which have since been collected into a book. Each year, in his memory, his family organizes a hike somewhere in Israel in honor of him and his deep love for the Land. This year’s was in Kfar Uriya, a small town right where the coastal plain meets the Judean Hills. At one point I spoke to Alex’s father (his whole family has since made aliya and his brother is Saul Singer, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and co-author of Start-Up Nation) as we hiked, and when he asked why I came ,I told him the truth: As inspiring as Alex’s story is, I never heard of him when I signed up for the hike, all I knew was that I love hiking and this sounded like a great chance to take my first trek outside Jerusalem since arriving. He responded by pointing out that, from where we were standing, I actually could see most of the country, and he was right: Standing on the hills right as they meet the plain, I could see Tel-Aviv was against the horizon in front of me, Modiin to my right, Ashdod distantly to my left, and when I turned around, I saw the hills leading up to Jerusalem behind me, not to mention the ancient and modern farmland and the little moshav of Kfar Uriya immediately surrounding me on all sides. Pictures here. (The kid in the Pitt shirt is the son of one of our rabbis. I told him how much I liked his shirt and he just said “I’ve never actually been to Pittsburgh.”) It’s unreal just how small and beautiful this country is.
All during the hike, people who knew Alex (who comprised just about all of the hiking group not from Pardes) shared memories of what an amazing and special person he was. As beautiful and moving as the memories were, what their reminiscing got me to thinking about most was whether I would want people reading select choices from my writings to make me out to be some kind of saint if–God forbid–something happened to me, and the thought made me sick. Perhaps this is why the most profound memories of Alex, for me, were those shared by the couple he used to babysit for who generously gave me a ride home. They said they go on the hike each year, but they feel very uncomfortable at events like this because people tend to make him into “St. Alex,” which they said he wasn’t. They said if I talked to people about him, I should tell them that, special as he was, Alex was ultimately a person, just like anyone else. Sometimes he was goofy, and sometimes, they said, he even got annoying. Just like a real person. To emphasize their point, they asked me if I would want people treating me in a similar fashion if God-forbid something happened to me and I answered maybe a little too quickly with a resounding “No!” Though, thinking about it now, there are worse ways to be remembered…

When I first heard of the Gilad Shalit deal, I was strongly opposed–he seems so familiar to me that when I think of him I usually just call him “Gilad” without even thinking about it, like I know him, yet even still I can’t understand the logic of jeopardizing all of Israel to redeem the life of one person–yes, every life is precious, and that is exactly why we can’t take such a big risk. I’d like to say I went to the Knesset or the Shalit family’s tent tent to experience his redemption first-hand with Israelis, but I didn’t. Instead I stayed in my room and followed the live blog on Haaretz, updating it every few minutes, anxiously gobbling up the latest news and pictures exactly like I would have done back in the States if I didn’t have anything to be up for the next morning. The whole time my brain kept telling me this is nothing to celebrate, yet with each new image of Gilad–Gilad looking emaciated as a concentration camp survivor being cruelly “interviewed” by Egyptian TV, Gilad arriving back home in Israel where he belongs–my heart swelled bigger and bigger in spite of my brain’s protestations, so that by the time I saw the first pictures of Gilad embracing his family, who has endured things no one should ever have to know, my brain knew full well what it could do with its logic. As a Jew, I should know by now that this “logic” business doesn’t apply in Israel: If we were “logical,” we never would have even considered negotiating this deal to begin with. If we were “logical” we would have been rioting instead of celebrating. If we were “logical,” people would have been calling for Bibi’s head instead of calling it one of his finest moments. But then again, if we were “logical,” we wouldn’t exist. And I’m one to talk– if I were so “logical” I wouldn’t have taken a year out of my life to go on a trip I can’t afford to a pushy, maladjusted little country in the Middle-East to learn books written 1,000’s of years ago that most probably won’t really help my career plans nor would I get excited about leaving my good apartment to eat in a booth and getting up early each morning to perform an arcane ritual involving shaking overpriced flora. So what do I do about this horribly unfair deal? I’ll pursue the only reasonable, illogical option available to me: I’ll pray.

I eventually did make my way outside on Tuesday to find people crowded around TVs, the sign on the left everywhere, and myself able to understand at least one word in every conversation, “Gilad.” It was something I’ll never forget.

Translation: “How good that you’ve come home!!!”

As it happens, I had been planning a party under my sukkah that night since before the deal, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to Gilad. It didn’t take long for the tone to become typically Jewish, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Speaking of times for rejoicing, Simchat Torah was amazing, though I admit it was an abrupt transition–I’m used to having a day of Shmini Atzeret to rest and eat up in preparation for Simchat Torah, but here, with the one-day Yom Tov, you are thrust right from the week into the chaos–one minute you’re checking your email, the next you’re riding on your friends’ shoulders screaming Hebrew songs and hi-fiveing strangers. I went to Pardes’ celebration Wednesday night, and it really was fantastic, different from the Chabad House celebrations I’m used to but no less fun and crazy, then to a great after party featuring, in addition to the wonderful people, maybe the greatest applecake I’ve ever eaten, and that’s saying a lot. I went to Shira Hadasha on Thrusday morning for what, between the dancing, and Hallel, and everyone getting an aliya, and Kiddush before Musaf, and Yizkor, turned out to be the longest service of the year, longer than Yom Kippur, though with considerably more dancing and eating. By the time services ended, and a group of friends and I ate at a friends house, the 25 hour ecstatic episode was over as soon as it began. During the lunch, my friends and I realized none of us had plans for Shabbat and began planning a meal together. This planning led to us hanging out under my friend’s sukkah listening to music and drinking beer long into the night. The next day at noon, we all met up again to cook our meal: challah with salatim (dips), Israeli salad (that I made!) with cheese, butternut squash soup with cheese, spicy Chinese tofu with rice that I learned how to make, and Marzipan and fruit salad for dessert.
That night, we davened Kabbalat Shabbat at Mizmor LeDavid, a wonderful nusach Sfard shul made up of almost entirely white Ashkenazi English-speaking olim that is arguably the hippie-est, singy-est, Carlebachy-est Orthodox shul in Jerusalem, and, as anyone whose been following my shul-hopping knows, that’s saying a lot. I had already been there for services the first day of Sukkot and enjoyed it, but I heard from many people that if you haven’t been there for Kabbalat Shabbat, you just haven’t been there. They were right. By Psalm 96, the small shul was packed—almost literally bursting at the seams—on both sides of the mechitza, all of them singing passionately, eyes closed, at the top of their lungs, pounding any and every available surface to the beat, or else stretching out their arms to Heaven, just totally and completely losing themselves in the prayer, pouring their entire soul into this tornado of ruakh so powerful and so inescapable that even an object so unmovable as Richard Dawkins would have had no choice but to find himself utterly swept up in it. Within 5 minutes of crossing the threshold, he would be pounding his siddur, and shaking his head, tears beading in his shut eyes, feeling Rav Shlomo’s Shiru L’Hashem with us. It was an incredibly amazing experience, definitely in my top 3 Kabbalat Shabbats, and was made even better by the fact that (speaking of Jewish hippies) seemingly half of Pardes was there. I will be back next week.

The spirit continued at the meal. The food turned out fantastic and we had equally great conversation over it. Once we could eat no more, we sat around and read chapters of the first half of The Little Prince to each other. I’m not sure how I managed to go 23 years without ever reading that book or attending a Mizmor Kabbalat Shabbat, but thank God I experienced both now before I could become too much in danger of ever becoming a grown-up.
Shabbat morning we went back to Mizmor. While the guy passing out snuff midway through the morning services made a noble effort at bridging the gap between the spiritual levels of the Friday night and Saturday morning services, even with performance-enhancing substances, the energy level, while still higher than most other shuls, still just wasn’t the same as the previous night. But it was a rollicking service nonetheless and it gave me a great idea for how to boost membership at YPS when I get back. (No, Mom, I didn’t take any.)

For lunch we and our guest had leftovers and a vegetable bake we didn’t have room to even consider starting the previous night. After stuffing ourselves again we finished The Little Prince. Around sunset, we woke up from our naps, davened Mincha, ate cake and leftovers, then went out to the mirpeset to welcome the stars with song. By the time the sun set, we were all feeling very full.
Quote of the Week: “I don’t want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decisionmaking. I’d rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I’m so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders. There are nights which make the weight disappear, and I love those nights.

I’m feeling wonderful and very much at peace with my decision to stay on.”
-Alex Singer, July 5, 1986

Hebrew Word of the Week חופש (“khofesh”) – Freedom