Favellas and Succot

In the hills overlooking Rio vast slums, each made up of thousands of flimsy shacks, perch precariously.

September 25, 2007 20:33
Favellas and Succot

Favella 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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Let me tell you about my Brazilian song. I heard many songs in Brazil, surely the most musical of all countries. The power of dance and music shapes few worlds so forcefully as Brazil's. It's been almost two decades since I heard my song for Succot in Brazil, but it is as fresh today as it was in 1988. Let me tell you about it, for the song continues to haunt me. It is a song of the shacks in the slums - the Succot of the Brazilian favellas and it asks: Who is rich, and who is poor, and where is the sky, after all? In the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro vast slums perch precariously, each made up of thousands of succot - that is to say, flimsy shacks in which people live. How many? Upwards of three million, I was told. In the valleys below live middle-class and rich people, where (just like in Johannesburg) modest families employ only two or three servants (at $40 a month), rich ones, many more. The impoverished people descend from their hilltop fortresses, work if they can, steal if they have to (having left my arm out the window, my watch was nearly ripped off as I sat in traffic on a busy highway). Then they scramble up to the favella and return, each family to its "succa." The favellas, with their succa-shacks, are ungovernable. The government cannot deliver services to them, the police cannot reach into them. So what do the officials do? To reach the people, they organize what they call "samba-schools," which teach not only the national dance of the country but also music and instruments. And the people come. They will not come for food, but they will come for music. And through dance and music the state can reach and try to serve the vast population that lives in the clouds, beyond all earthly grasp. NOW WHAT do these shacks in the clouds, filled with starving people always ready for a song and a dance, have to do with the shacks we call succot, and with our celebration of our festival of rejoicing? My wife, the artist, is the one who came up with the word "succa" for the housing in the favellas, and it struck home. But in the favellas people live not as an act of sanctification, as we do because, at this season of the full moon of Tishrei, we are commanded to do so, but because they have to. And that set me to thinking. On Succot we are commanded to be poor, to reenter that world in which vast populations on this planet live because of a different commandment, one of necessity, in sight of the stars and without a roof. For us, its cold is refreshing; for them, it is just cold. For us, it is an act of consecration to reenter the world of the flimsy shack - without water, without heat, with only God to sustain us. For them, it is a world of bitter necessity. But in Rio they can sing and dance: to music and artful gesture their souls still respond. Give me shoes, and they will wear out. But give me a song, and I will always have it to warm my heart. SUCCOT GIVES us a taste of poverty that reminds us of the here and the now, not only of long ago; or of distant days ahead. It is good for us Jews, most of us living in comfort, to be made to remember poverty, which most of our grandparents suffered, to be made to experience need. But not need alone: also the power of song and dance; for at the end of Succot, on Simhat Torah, our rite has us dance with the Torah! Succot makes us into street-people. On Succot we leave our homes and take up residence, if only for meals, in the Jewish favella: the neighborhood made up of succot. We live in shacks for a week. In our mind's eye, so the Torah teaches, these are heavenly dwellings. Together with us in the succa, after all, are the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. There we sing for them, with them. To live in poverty and to sing - that is Succot; the Jewish reminder that most people, in most places, do not have roofs, but see the stars by night because they have to. Succot reminds us, in our wealth, that we have souls, and that our souls sustain us. That is why, when I raised my eyes upwards, riding along the gloriously beautiful streets of Rio and looking at the mountains on high, I thought of Succot. That and one more thing: I learned from that great rabbi, Rabbino Henry I Sobel, of the Congregação Israelita Paulista in São Paulo, what really counts in thinking about the Jewish world. AT A DINNER he and I attended in São Paulo for Yitzhak Navon - when the former president of Israel was in town - we sat with some impatience through a long discussion about the Jewish future, in Brazil, US, Argentina, and of course the State of Israel. Navon, a person of substance and intellect, catalogued all the reasons American Jewry is going to fade away, all the more so Brazilian and the rest of the Latin American Jewries, whether small, as in Bogota or Lima, or great and thriving, as in Buenos Aires, Rio, and Såo Paulo. Intermarriage, low levels of Jewish literacy, declining standards of ritual observance - all are indicators of change transformed into harbingers of doom. Then Rabbi Sobel remarked, "Mr. Navon, people focus on the future. But what concerns me is the present." He proceeded to explain: "Everyone is always talking about what is going to happen. But I am worried about today. If there is no today, then what difference does tomorrow make?" With these eloquent words, he set forth the simple fact that, in his view, the life of Jewry even now is vacant and purposeless, lacking any sense of the richness of life and the gift of fellowship framed by Jews in association with Jews and so forming, in the here and the now, Israel in their particular place. The then head of the Confederation of Brazilian Jews, a lawyer of real probity, joined in: "We are opportunists, here to make money and keep to ourselves." Rabbi Sobel: "We are afraid to participate in public life, to address public concerns, to help solve the problems of this country, and when Jews do engage in public affairs, they are marginalized by the Jewish community." I cannot judge the facts, though they made me think of home; I know others differed with the leaders' assessment. But once again I wondered: Who lives in the succa, and who lives in the mansion? And who lives by song and dance? In the hills above Rio people are starving, but they have music and dance in their lives to sustain them. In the luxury apartments down below are people eating enormous meals, served by two, three, five maids and butlers. They worry about the future, but they should ask whether, after all, there is any present in the here and now. THAT IS the message of Succot: We are all street people. For living without food and the shelter of roof is one sort of privation, and living without song and the dance that stand for the heart and soul - that is another sort of privation. And it is the kind of poverty of soul that, in my view, we suffer. On Succot, we move into the Jewish favella, the slum made up of shacks, to become street-people and experience poverty. But the poverty we suffer is within: that realization I owe to my dear friend and rabbi, Rabbi Henry I. Sobel. The writer is distinguished professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College in New York state.

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