My kind of Ushpizin

Updating the ancient practice of inviting elevated souls into our sukkah by finding the mitzvah heroes all around us.

MYRIAM MENDILOW talks to a group of USYers in the courtyard of Yad Lakashish as the author looks on (photo credit: Courtesy)
MYRIAM MENDILOW talks to a group of USYers in the courtyard of Yad Lakashish as the author looks on
(photo credit: Courtesy)
According to the mystics, seven guests visit us in the sukkah, one on each night of Sukkot. We call them Ushpizin, and various traditions have arisen over the centuries for welcoming these guests into our temporary homes.
I. Ushpizin – my problems with the traditional practice
A. The word
1. The root of this Aramaic word means “hospitality, a place to stay.” (As happens so much in the development of word meanings, I find it strange that in modern Hebrew, it is used to mean “to hospitalize.”) The mystics a few centuries ago introduced it as a custom to invite seven special guests into one’s sukkah. As with many formerly peripheral practices, such as the Seder Tu Bishvat, it has become more and more popular. I think it is because it has so much potential meaning.
2. I also think that it’s because it is such a weird sounding name. Certain words, names and things stay with us for no logical reason, like Syngman Rhee, Babe Didrickson Zaharias, and Catfish Hunter, infarct, edema, and the islets of Langerhans, Annapurna, and – really weird – oblate spheroid, explained to me in Geography-Geology 101 as the true shape of the Earth.
B. My problems
Did our mystics expect me to have Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, sitting around the table in my sukkah? There are several problems with this scene:
1) The stress level would drive my blood sugar through the roof.
2) No matter what the Midrash says, I’m not so sure Isaac wants to be seated next to his father.
3) Being a feminist, I wonder why women giants of our history were not invited, including: Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter; white-haired great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother Serach bat Asher, still in her full vigor and untouched by the least hint of loss of memory; Devorah, all decked out in her exquisitely burnished Yom Tov sword and shield; Rabbi Akiva’s Rachel and Rabbi Meir’s Bruria, both of whom in some fashion rescued the Talmud from 100% male domination; Rashi’s daughters; the forthright Reina Batya, scholar and wife of the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin (with or without a shaitel is still historically unclear); Golda Meir still looking like a schoolteacher; Henretta Szold; Nechama Leibovitz, still dazzling into her 92nd year, rescuer of deep Bible study for the masses; and the many others.
4) The flow of conversation. For a moment just consider Moses. What if he stuttered, stammered or mumbled so badly that I couldn’t understand what he was saying? Would it be proper for me, little Danny Siegel from Arlington, Virginia, to say to Moshe Rabbeinu as politely as humanly possible, “Would you mind repeating that, please?” Or to Jacob: Would I, son of an osteopathic physician, blurt out, “How’s your hip doing?” Or, just exactly what would you say as an opening line to the Jewish viceroy of Egypt?
5) Ritual logistics. Would I ask King David to lead Birkat Hamazon (the after-meal blessings) because (as some translate) he has such a sweet voice, or am I supposed to apologize to him, despite his royalty and relationship to the Mashiach, and ask him to defer and give the honor to Aaron because he was a Kohen, since that is what the Shulchan Aruch says is the proper thing to do?   
I certainly don’t know how Kabbalists visualize things, but by my way of picturing the scene, I can only say, “Gevalt!”
II. My vision of Ushpizin
I want to make it clear that I am not uninviting the Magnificent Seven. It’s just that they’d have to come sans priestly or royal vestments: urim and tumim and miter, gold neck chain and scepter of Egyptian authority, or bejeweled sparkling crowns and the like. And they should sit unobtrusively at the end of the table and smile, perhaps rise and hug my Ushpizin guests.
I will have explained that there are so many of them I only have room for a few each night.
On any given night, my Ushpizin – whom I call “mitzvah heroes” – would include:
1) Myriam Mendilow, founder of Yad LaKashish-Lifeline for the Old, taking old beggars off the street and filling their lives beautifully and meaningfully in various workshops – not jingling coins in their palms to get attention, nor giving them mere busy work that belittles their dignity.
2) Joseph Gitler, deeply troubled by the enormous waste of food, started with one wedding hall and became the largest food rescuer in Israel.
3) Anita Shkedi, founder of therapeutic horseback riding in the Holy Land – providing relief, cure, promise and hope for hundreds of adults and children with an enormous range of physical, mental, emotional and psychological limitations.
4) Emma Forstein of Topeka, Kansas, who at age seven set up a lemonade stand to raise money for victims of tornadoes far away in Oklahoma City.
5) Hadassah Levi, who gathered 40 infants with Down syndrome from hospitals where they had been left behind by their parents, and raised them, assuring them a good life and opportunities to be adult Israelis in the normal work force of society.
6) Ya’akov Maimon, recorder for the government, inventor of Hebrew shorthand, matching thousands of volunteers – some literally grabbed off the street to “be volunteered” – with the new immigrants flooding the early years of the state; teaching them Hebrew, tutoring the children and welcoming them to their new home.
7) Clara Hammer, “The Chicken Lady of Jerusalem,” who anonymously paid for the Shabbat and holiday food for a couple of hundred families, well into her 90s, after they had come to Mr. Hacker, her butcher.
III. An extra-special guest among special guests
I began my search for mitzvah heroes in 1975, though I was unaware back then that this was what I would do for the next four-and-a-half decades. Now, in 2019, it is not always possible to remember who it was who recommended or pushed me to meet this one or that one. I think I know who told me about Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, but I am not 100% certain. I do know, however, that I met her on my first mitzvah trip in 1975.
It did not take long to realize that the rabbanit was a “classic tzadeket,” a righteous woman, devoting her time, energy and mitzvah-creativity for the benefit of others. I have always been uncomfortable when the introduction to a speaker states, “This person has devoted his/her life to,” etc. However, as nearly as can be described – allowing of course for her relationship with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – this was true of the hours, days, weeks, months and years of the rabbanit’s life.
The array of her well-known projects would be enough to qualify her for the title. To name a few: Passover food packages for many hundreds of individuals and families; lending wedding dresses for brides who could never afford even to rent one (and sheets, towels and other household goods for the new home); distributing food from the stock on her balcony for the many regulars (and occasional strangers) who knocked on her door; summer camp for the neighborhood kids – and school supplies when they returned in the fall; and organizing exercise and swimming lessons for stressed-out women, mostly mothers and grandmothers. She also taught Torah regularly.
This list, however, does not include the thousands – many thousands – of personal crises she handled through direct, intimate conversations with the broken or breaking people who streamed to her. Sitting in her apartment, it was inevitable that someone would knock, in need of food, or spiritual or psychological guidance and support, all of which was discussed in whispers out of earshot.
I am neither a mystic nor am I a believer in hassidic stories about rebbes having some direct line of communication to Heaven. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that Rabbanit Kapach did. Every time she responded to my questions about how she would manage alef, bet or gimel, she would answer, HaShem ya’azor, “God will help.” And more often than not, the Holy One came through for her.
Those who follow cop shows on TV are familiar with the refrain, “Just doing my job, ma’am,” after they have solved even the most intricate or dangerous case, and brought more justice into the world. Lehavdil (to note the distinction between very different types), the rabbanit would have put the expressions of Castle, Monk, Joe Friday, Crocket and Tubbs, Briscoe and Curtis in her own words and would have said it this way, “Life is mitzvahs.” For the rabbanit, that is why God gave her the gift of life.
IV. In sum
There are many, many more mitzvah heroes I could mention. But even if I divided them up among all the days of Sukkot, there would be so many, it would necessitate extending my sukkah into my neighbor’s yard, and I am not certain the family would agree to it. Most likely, the sukkah would actually extend down the block, no doubt violating several codes and laws of Rockville, Maryland. Furthermore, The Zohar’s seven would be so far away from the head of the table, I would be considered a terrible host by having to shout just to hold a conversation – which would hardly be in the spirit of the simcha, the joy of the holiday.
That’s the thing about simcha: It’s supposed to be about unrestrained good feelings, and unadulterated joy, hope for humanity and the world. Just consider the non-simcha mood of a conversation with Isaac, always confused and, consciously or unconsciously, aware of his silence on the way up the mountain lurking behind the conversation; or being on edge that something would set off an outburst of anger from Moses; or needing a psychiatrist’s advice on how to speak to Aaron, with the Golden Calf constantly on his mind; or worrying about David flashing on Uriah on the battlefield. How do you have a casual schmooze with any of them and, in the spirit of Sukkot, contemplate all of humanity being at peace around the world?
And that’s the thing about my guests: There’s no stress with them, they are humble through and through, and there is no taint of ego in their mitzvah work. There is a straightforward innocence about them, and none of them have The Dark Side or tricky personalities. Despite their awesome achievements in making people’s lives better, they are eminently (and definitely, at first, disarmingly) approachable. Meeting any one of them, one is immediately set at ease, which is what I think we would all want for the atmosphere in a sukkah. This is hardly the case with the Kabbalists’ list of guests.
I would summarize it this way: For the past 44 years, I have taken American and Canadian teenagers from the United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage to meet these awesome individuals. A couple of years ago one of these teenagers said it best when referring to the Rabbanit Kapach, “She’s cool!”
V. In sum II
I have forgotten something important and need to clarify. Few people have had the opportunities I have had to travel so extensively and to discover the mitzvah heroes I wrote about. But the fact is, mitzvah heroes are everywhere if we would only attune ourselves to look for them or notice them – including children – when they are brought to our attention: in the media, in our synagogues and other communal places where we gather, and among our family and friends. They do not have to be of the magnitude of the ones I have listed.
We may have missed it in others because we were paying too much attention to their “success” and “achievements,” such as advanced degrees in biochemistry or Carnegie Hall-level piano performances. Those biochemists or pianists may very well be the utterly kind, caring and unassuming people we want to associate intimately with and learn from. But being a mitzvah hero goes beyond status, titles, popularity, or degrees.
They are the ones we should invite into our sukkah.
The writer is an American author, lecturer and poet who has spoken on tzedaka and Jewish values in more than 500 North American communities to communal organizations, synagogues, JCCs and Federations. In April, the Jewish Publication Society will publish The Selected Prose and Poetry of Danny Siegel – Radiance, Creative Mitzvah Living.