My favorite feast

What does a person leave on this earth if not his traditions?

Preparing for Succot in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda Market (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Preparing for Succot in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda Market
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Every Jewish holiday is my favorite.
Passover provides pleasing rites and rituals, and the bonus of a sparkling house. Rosh Hashana is relaxingly languid, with oceans of time for shul and food and friends and beach.
Hanukka has hassle-free festivities and family sing-alongs; on Shavuot, our garden gleams in the glow of spring as we chomp through cheesecake and creamy teas. Purim has parties. Even Yom Kippur wins a prize for awe and endurance and the huge Breaking of the Fast that we traditionally hold.
But of all the holidays that we know and love, I’d have to award douze points to Succot – the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Succot is special. It simply stretches on and on, without the restrictions of Passover or the working week of Hanukka, and it incorporates the highlights of every other festival. There is food, of course, and the paraphernalia of lulavim et al., and there are Holy Days and holidays, and days and days to mellow under the canopy of leaves and catch up with life. We always invited our work friends and golf friends and old friends and family, and food flowed through our makeshift haven from morning till night. Martin’s homemade granola breakfasts morphed into lasagna lunches; scrumptious hot apple cakes were brought out for tea, and then we tucked into turkey dinners for 20 in our softly lit succa.
What can I say? Those were the days, and they were lovely.
But last year the festivities were tinged with a terrible sense of unreality.
My beautiful husband was paperthin by then, and on his challenging diet in a desperate attempt to eke out some extra months on earth. We made ketogenic cakes, and ketogenic fruit platters, and served ketogenic cheeses.
And our work friends and golf friends and old friends and family gathered as usual in our succa by our pool; but the shadow of death hung over our garden of Eden.
Martin wrote a blog in the second year of his illness, and I revisited in the run-up to the hagim this year. The Succot entry recalls his childhood succa in London: the floor and the retractable roof built by his dad, the overcoats and heaters to ward off the British autumnal chill. Mart blogged about building our own Kfar Saba succa, and how we kicked off the proceedings (with the help of an army of little cousins), after a good meal at the close of Yom Kippur. He gave thanks for the blessed opportunity to welcome friends into our home. Then my husband quoted Deuteronomy 16:13-15: ‘And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow… and you shall be altogether joyful.”
We sat in the succa, on the last day of the holiday, on one of the last good days of his life, and Martin spoke about the sequence of joy. He had read Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Jerusalem Post article, which explained how the Bible teaches a person to rejoice first with himself, his development and his achievements, and then with his family who are closest to him. Finally he rejoices with his community and appreciates what he has and shares it with others.
Martin explained that the flimsy succa structure enveloped him with its aura of happiness – the happiness inherent in the support of family and friends.
He proclaimed that Succot gave him perspective; the tools to analyze his great happiness, and the trials present and to come. And then, in true fashion, my husband ended with giving thanks and on an optimistic note.
Yet this year, sadly too soon for us, we find that we are the widow and the fatherless sitting in our succa. And I must admit, without Martin in it, a succa in our garden seemed pretty pointless to me. I floated the idea to my girls: Maybe this year we’d break our fast alone with a cup of tea and a cinnamon bun; we’d skip the sessions in the kitchen and the supermarket schlepps, and we’d visit other succot and forget about gathering s’chach and pinning up sheets.
My daughters nixed my suggestion in less than a nanosecond. What does a person leave on this earth if not his traditions, they asked, and do I not think daddy would want them to continue in his way? They are right, of course; of course they are right.
So once again, we’re in full-production mode in our kitchen, and someone else will bring us our leafy roof. At the end of the day we are the sum of our experiences; and we are blessed in all our happy ones. So we will rejoice in our tabernacle (without the manservants and maidservants for the moment)… and try to be altogether joyful, despite the challenges on the road. Because, as Abie Nathan used to intone each night as twilight fell, “with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
With the words of “Desiderata” as inspiration, I would like to thank readers of the paper for their heartfelt emails (and even calls) in response to my column. The stories that so many of you have shared with me, and the support, have been very embracing. Hag sameah; a joyous holiday, to us all.  The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the Interdisciplinary Center,