Usher a group of unsuspecting dinner guests into a rickety structure just a few
meters square, expecting them to pass the evening sitting shoulder to shoulder
around a table that takes up most of the available room, and they very likely
wouldn’t be happy campers.
They’d probably be dealing with issues like
invasion of private space, a sense of being located too close for comfort to
their neighbors, the impossibility of making a polite exit, perhaps even
feelings of claustrophobia.
Yet this week, all over the Jewish world,
groups of people all shapes, sizes and temperaments, some of whom already know
each other, some of whom don’t, have been piling quite happily into flimsy
dwellings not much bigger – and in some cases much smaller – than a garden
To the children – and the child that lives inside us – it’s a
delightful change from the way we live year round, enclosed within four
Our adult selves, exposed to the elements while in the
succa, are reminded that our continuing existence here on earth, on safe and
solid ground, is not something to be taken for granted.
In Israel, it
rained on the first night of Succot, accompanied by bolts of thunder and jags of
Inside our dwellings at any other time of year, we would have
heard it; on Sunday night, we felt it.
HOW MUCH space do we humans
actually need for comfort? It’s an intriguing question, seeing that we start off
as fetuses snug and content inside the narrow confines of mom’s
Once out in the world, however, our accumulation of “stuff”
deemed vital to happiness – consider just the toys and other paraphernalia
surrounding the average Western infant – picks up speed, demanding larger and
larger spaces to store all these things and, indeed, show them off.
own, therefore I am” is the modern mantra, with its inevitable corollary of “I
own, and thereby am driven to own even more.” The drive for material possessions
is never really satisfied.
And perhaps that is one of the realities
addressed by the week of Succot, in which Jews live – even sleep, as many do –
inside the most basic of temporary dwellings, doing without all the
accoutrements they are accustomed to.
In demonstrating that we can manage
quite well without all our usual stuff around us, we invite a personal
consideration of just what our essential selves are and, by extension, what is
really important in our lives.
As such, the sojourn in the succa seems a
fitting winding-up (or winding down) of the High Holy Day period, in which
reflection and self-examination play such a major part.
THAT SAID, it is
surely not an indictment of our human nature to long for a living area in which
we can freely move about and stretch our physical selves.
concepts of what is considered essential living space have changed drastically
over the four decades I’ve been in Israel.
Where, once, overnight guests
would naturally and unquestioningly have been accommodated on mattresses laid
down on the floor, today’s apartment buyer wants a “guest room,” even if it has
to double as a study or computer room.
And while indoor, private toilets
were once viewed as a luxury, many modern Israelis now wonder how anyone can
manage with just a single bathroom.
Twenty or 30 years ago, a couple
would have raised three or four children uncomplainingly in the threeroom
apartment my husband and I now occupy. Yet we feel the space is too cramped for
just the two of us plus our electronic gadgetry.
ONE OF my dreams is to
have a large, airy bedroom like those you see in furniture ads, something that’s
intended for more than just sleeping. It’s a place in which I can walk around,
sink into a cozy armchair, maybe sit at a small table – you get the
My current Israeli reality is an area of roughly three square
meters in which our (small) double bed has been pushed into a corner in order to
allow movement on what little remains of the floor. Two Twiggys might get
dressed there simultaneously; for any two others, it’s a challenge.
for the aforementioned bed, there’s really only one way to make it, and that is
to launch yourself across the mattress and lie there like a beached whale, arms
and legs extended, while you attempt to tuck in the sheet on the far side. It
takes energy and I know looks quite ridiculous.
Is it over-materialistic
to aspire to a sleeping chamber where I can walk around the bed and still have
space to spare; where my husband can slide effortlessly into bed each night
instead of having to clamber up from the bottom?
THE AMERICAN anthropologist
Edward T. Hall (1914- 2009) coined the term proxemics in his study of how human
culture influences our use of space.
In his most famous innovation,
described in The Hidden Dimension,
he defined the personal spaces that surround
individuals: intimate space, into which only one’s closest friends and intimates
can enter; social and consultative space, in which people feel comfortable
conducting routine social interactions; and public space, the area in which
interactions are perceived as impersonal and relatively
Cultural expectations about these spaces and people’s
consequent behavior regarding them can vary widely – as many Western immigrants
to Israel have found to their amusement or, more often, dismay.
hate most is waiting in a queue with people who have no concept of private
space,” a European friend on an extended stay in this country told me. “I can
often smell them, and even feel their breath on the back of my neck.”
things have improved, albeit slowly. Over the last several years, banks, post
offices, health centers and other public institutions have introduced the
numbers system. This move is changing the local culture by enforcing a
reasonable seated distance from the service counters, and a polite if resigned
wait for one’s turn in place of what used to be a daunting and pushy freefor-
all in which the squeakiest wheels received the oil.
In some places,
putting up rope channels to keep people in line, with added signs at the front
saying “Ad kan (Do not go beyond this point)” have also helped to keep strangers
well out of one’s consultative space – though you still encounter those annoying
individuals who’ll push ahead because they “just want to ask a
AS FOR invasions of personal space, as someone who made aliya
from Britain where, famously, both the individual who accidentally steps on
someone’s foot and the owner of the foot still apologize profusely to each
other, it’s upsetting when Israelis knock into you or push past without so much
as a backward glance.
Is this the expression of a different cultural
attitude to personal space, or just rudeness? It hardly seems to matter. Parents
and educators must know that inculcating kindness and consideration begins in
the home and classroom, and that selfish children will grow into selfish
WHAT DOES it mean to give your “significant other” space?
Clearly, it doesn’t mean just physical space – though that can be important –
but room to express his or her personality, even when it differs markedly from
It can be a real challenge, but there’s really no other way to
solidify and ultimately enrich a partnership.
I am often impulsive about
making decisions, even important ones, while my husband needs time to sort out
his thoughts and the course of action he wants to take. It can be agonizing to
stay put and do nothing while his mental cogs slowly turn. Yet how else to live
life as a team? In contrast, he has demonstrated a strong predilection for
washing dishes – and in this area, I am quite content to leave the kitchen and
give him all the space he needs.
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