Presumably deterred by forecasts of rain, there were far fewer visitors to President Reuven Rivlin’s sukka this year than in years gone by.
In previous years, long lines of people were gathered outside the gates of the President’s Residence for more than an hour before the official opening. After that, as increasing numbers of people arrived, the lines would stretch out in the street for at least 10 meters on each side, then inside through the grounds, under the pergola, through the main reception hall and into the sukka before the throng finally swept out onto the lawns. This year, an hour-and-a-half before the official opening, there were no lines, just a very small group of people waiting to be admitted.
The pace picked up a little bit closer to 10 a.m. Curiously, it was only after it began to rain that the number of visitors began to increase rapidly and the situation became chaotic.
As in previous years, security guards insisted on one-way traffic.
In other words, anyone who had already passed through the sukka could not turn around and leave through the same doorway.
But after the rain developed into a heavy downpour, people refused to take the long walk around the other side of the building and began to push their way through the doorway, colliding with visitors moving in the opposite direction. As many people came with two, three and more small children, the security personnel could not really push back for fear of harming someone.
Naturally, whoever came wanted to see the president. But Rivlin appeared only from time to time to greet his guests, shake a few hands and pose for selfies before being whisked back into his inner sanctum.
His predecessor, Shimon Peres, did the same, but that was because of his advanced age. Before that, the presidents of Israel would stand for hours in the sukka, shaking hundreds of hands and giving visitors the satisfaction of knowing that they had actually made contact with the president, however briefly.
On Monday, there was also confusion as to whether Rivlin would speak from the sukka or address his guests outside. There were microphones inside and outside, and those visitors who wanted to hear him ran back and forth between the two locations. Each time he emerged, Rivlin said something different that was in one way or another related to the Sukkot festival.
The dual theme of this year’s open house at the president’s sukka was the 70th anniversary of the state and fraternal unity between the people of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.
As soon as they entered the grounds, visitors were confronted with a huge signboard that carried the message, 'We are celebrating 70 in the President’s Sukka with our brethren in the Diaspora.” A few steps on, giant colored balloons printed with odds and ends of Jewish trivia floated up from the garden.
Examples of the trivia: Did you know that 2,300 Jews live in Morocco? Did you know that 197 Nobel Prize winners are of Jewish background and represent 20% of all the laureates? Did you that Jews live in 96 countries outside of Israel? Did you know that there are 10 Jewish languages other than Hebrew? Did you know that Jews have won 475 Olympic medals? Did you know that of the 14.3 million Jews in the world, eight million don’t live in Israel? Then, to give credit to Diaspora Jews, there were a series of placards under the title of Jewish heroes who had made significant breakthroughs in their respective professions.
They included: French film director and screen writer Claude LeLouche; American fashion and accessory designers Donna Karan and Michael Kors; American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich; American singer, songwriter, actress and film-maker Barbara Streisand; American comedian, actor, writer, producer and director Jerry Seinfeld; American producer, director and screenwriter Steven Spielberg; French Algerian singer Enrico Macias; and Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.
Inside the reception hall, there was an English-language video with Hebrew subtitles that focused on Jewish unity, Jewish identity and combating antisemitism. The video also contained Jewish demographic statistics from various countries.
There was a small exhibition of large photos of Rivlin with US President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and US Ambassador David Friedman on the day that he presented his credentials. There were also photographs of Rivlin with volunteers from different organizations, and of Nechama Rivlin with lone soldiers.
In the sukka itself, there was a magnificent work of art – a map of the world on a white backdrop.
The map had been fashioned out of flowers, fruits and vegetables in different colors. Only someone looking at it with a critical eye could discern that the artist overlooked Japan. And as far as Australia was concerned, Queensland somehow got merged with the Northern Territory, so that the gap between the two and the northern tip of Queensland were missing, which changed the geography but didn’t detract from the beauty of the map.
There were displays of fruits, vegetables and ornaments labeled South America, North Africa and Europe, but there was nothing to indicate whether these products were used to decorate the sukka in those places or whether the fruits and vegetables came from those parts of the world.
Outside, there were stages representing place such as Times Square in New York and Red Square in Moscow. A singer-guitarist with a strong American accent stood on the Times Square stage and sang Hatikva over and over, while holding up various pro-Israel signs, one of which read: “Don’t be calm.
Stand up for Israel.”
When Rivlin came out during the rain – to cheers from the crowd that had pushed its way into the reception hall – he said that during the rest of the year, various dignitaries, including heads of state and diplomats come to the President’s Residence, but on Sukkot people from all sectors of Israel’s population come both as hosts and as guests. As for the rain, Rivlin said it was a good thing, especially in Israel where it also a blessing. He also spoke of the importance of togetherness despite differences.
Many visitors to the president’s sukka, including those who had cars, had to cross large puddles to get to the other side of the road.
Those without cars had a tough time avoiding the water in the numerous and deep potholes all over Rehavia and Talbiyeh neighborhoods.
To make matters worse, those living in Rehavia who wanted to pass through Balfour Road, one of two streets intersecting at the Prime Minister’s Residence, were not permitted to do so, because workers were digging up the pavement on both Balfour Road and Smolenskin Street, on which the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Residence is located.
The work was being carried out on the pavement, not on the road, but nonetheless, security personnel refused to allow pedestrians to take this route and sent them to walk an extra two blocks in the rain to get to wherever they were going.