Succa of dreams

If Mel built a succa for his religious son, David would have no legitimate excuse not to come sleep over. Now all he needed were three little Mexicans.

311_lit-up building (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_lit-up building
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
‘Trabajo, señor?’ a short Mexican wearing an Angels baseball cap asked as he tapped on Mel’s car window.
Mel was startled at first, but quickly remembered why he was there. Where else could you find such cheap labor – and on a Sunday morning no less. He rolled down his window a crack and held up three fingers.
Angel Cap and two of his buddies, one in a straw cowboy hat and the other in blue jeans but no hat, quickly piled into the back seat. Mel eyed the trio in the rear view mirror as they drove south on the 405.
Traffic slowed to a crawl as they drove by the Angels’ ballpark. Mel never got used to the team’s name changes from the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels to the present name, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. How ridiculous! Besides, it was repetitive. Everyone knew that “Los Angeles” in Spanish meant “the angels,” so now the team was calling itself the Angels Angels.
Mel turned on the radio. The Angels were playing their season finale in Oakland. They had already clinched their playoff spot, so the game was meaningless, but it relaxed Mel all the same.
“Do you like the Angels, señor?” Angel Cap leaned forward and asked. He pronounced the word Angels as “anjeles.”
Mel ignored the question and turned up the volume.
Mel hadn’t been to a game in years. It was David who used to beg him to buy tickets. The two of them used to go to five or six games a year. The kid loved it. He knew all the players’ names and statistics. Mel sighed. That was a long time ago.
Angel Cap repeated his question. Mel responded by shutting off the radio and they rode in silence the rest of the way.
When they finally pulled up to Mel’s house, Mel’s wife, Judy, was in the driveway pacing frantically. Mel eased his wide frame out of the driver’s seat while the three day laborers quietly filed out from the back.
“Mel, David called.”
“So, when’s he coming? What time does his plane arrive from New York? Traffic to LAX is going to be murder. I need to know exactly when he arrives.”
“Well, Mel,” her voice trailed off, “I don’t think he’s coming.”
“He’s coming to LA, but he’s not coming here to our house.”
“What is it this time?” Mel shouted. “Our home isn’t kosher enough? I’ll buy out the Fairfax Kosher Deli! His mother’s kitchenware is treif? I’ll buy enough paper plates and plastic cutlery to last him a lifetime! What did I do to deserve this?”
Judy knew it was futile to try to calm her husband. She would just let him finish his tirade. Nothing set him off as much as their son the ba’al teshuva.
Two years before, after David graduated from high school, they had both agreed it would be a great idea to send him off to Israel for the summer to a kibbutz, but they never dreamed he would end up in a black hat yeshiva instead. Now Dovid, as he insisted on being called, was back in the States, but refused to eat in his parents’ nonkosher home. Sure, they had tried it for a while, with the paper plates and plastic cutlery, the canned tuna fish and the kosher meats from the deli in LA, but it was just too hard. Judy had come to terms with the fact that her son just wouldn’t eat at their home anymore, but Mel hadn’t.
“I didn’t make a fuss when he didn’t come to our Pessah Seder last year. I didn’t force him to come home for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur because I knew he wouldn’t step foot in our Reform temple, so I let it go. But the High Holy Days are over, Judy. What’s his excuse now?”
“Please Mel,” Judy pleaded, signaling with her head in the direction of the three shocked Mexicans. “Let’s talk about this inside.”
“I don’t care!” Mel growled. “Let them hear. They don’t have the foggiest idea what we’re talking about anyway. Just tell me why David won’t come this week – and it better not be the kosher thing!”
“Well,” Judy said in a cautious tone, “it’s because of Succot.”
“Succot? You mean that silly holiday with the huts? Come on! Now the kid’s just avoiding us.”
“No, Mel. He said that this week is the holiday of Succot and he will only eat and sleep in a succa. That’s why he’s not coming down here. He’s staying with friends in LA because they have a succa at their place.”
“Unbelievable! He’s passing on his parents and their million dollar house, the house he grew up in, to go eat and sleep in a little hut. Unbelievable!”
“Mel, it’s not that bad.”
MEL WANTED no part of it. He stormed into the house to go cool off, leaving his wife alone with the stunned trio.
Judy apologized to the workers and gave them instructions as to what jobs needed to be done in the yard.
The three silently made their way to where they’d be working. Once she had gone back into the house, Angel Cap whispered something to his two friends and they nodded enthusiastically.
It was nearly noon when Mel finally emerged to check on their progress.
“Señor Mel?” Angel Cap asked timidly.
“Eh, Señor Mel, we heard you and the señora talking. I think we have an answer to your problem with your son.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Mel was skeptical, but amused.
“Well, Señor Mel,” he said as he took off his cap and gardening gloves. “Your son won’t come to your house because you don’t have a hut. If you build a hut, then maybe he will come.”
Mel laughed hard. “A succa? You want me to build a succa?” “Si, si, señor. If you build it, he will come!”
“Kevin Costner!” Straw Hat blurted out.
“Campo de sueños!”
“What’s he babbling about?” Mel wondered aloud.
“La pelicula, señor,” the bareheaded one jumped in. “The movie – Field of Dreams. If you build it, he will come!”
“You’re crazy! Locos! All of you!”
“No Señor, we’re not locos,” Angel Cap explained. “If you build the succa, your hijo will come!”
“Succa de sueños – succa of dreams,” Straw Hat laughed, slapping Angel Cap on the back.
An odd smile broke across Mel’s face. If he built a succa, David would have no legitimate excuse not to come sleep over. These little Mexicans might actually be onto something. If he built it, maybe he would come.
But reality quickly set in. “It’s a nice idea amigos, except there’s one problem. I have no idea how to build a succa. I wouldn’t even know where to find instructions on how to build one.”
The laborers’ faces fell. It was such a good idea.
“En el Internet?” Straw Hat suggested.
Mel thought for a moment. The guys were right. If he searched, he could probably find instructions on how to build a succa on the Internet. Excitedly, he turned and went back into the house.
Within 20 minutes, Mel returned holding up a stack of papers in each hand, one in English and the other in Spanish. With a bit of suspicion, Mel gave the Spanish stack to Angel Cap. The other two workers huddled around him.
While they read, Mel was already planning ahead. He had a vision of what his succa would look like, just like his grandfather’s one he remembered growing up in Brooklyn, only much bigger.
“Okay,” Mel said once they finally looked up from their pages. “First we’ve got to go to the lumber yard to get some wood. Then we’ll measure the walls, and then we’ll...”
“Just a minute, señor,” Angel Cap interrupted, “that sounds like a lot of work.”
Just great, Mel thought. They just got here and they already want to negotiate.
But what Angel Cap explained to Mel was that according to the pages, a succa’s walls can be made out of almost anything, even a wall that is already built. They didn’t need to go building new walls they could simply take off the roof of an existing structure.
MEL LOOKED over to where Angel Cap’s little brown finger was pointing. The tool shed? “You see, Señor Mel, if we just take off the techo, the roof, from that little house over there and put on some branches like in this picture here,” he pointed to the drawing on his sheet, “you have your hut.”
Mel thought for a moment. The little guy was right. Growing up in New York he remembered many of his neighbors used to have the frame of their succa up all year round, like a gazebo, and then for Succot they’d just replace the roof with palm branches.
“That’s a good idea, um...”
“Jose, Señor,” he said extending his hand. Mel shook it. The other two introduced themselves as well. Pepe was the one in the straw cowboy hat and Manuel was the bareheaded one in the blue jeans.
“Okay, let’s do it,” Mel decided.
Andale, hombres!” Jose called out and the three of them made their way to the shed.
After they had cleared the wooden shack of all its contents, the three quickly swept away the dust and spiders’ webs. The roof was pretty easy to remove as it was just a hard plastic covering that protected the contents of the shed from the rare southern California rains.
Judy observed from the window. She wondered what in the world they were doing out there in the shed. She considered going out there to investigate, but then thought better of it.
The three workers successfully removed the plastic roof of the shed from the wooden beams that supported it. Mel supervised them closely all the while.
Las palmas, señor. We need palmas for the top.” The workers were pointing to the one palm tree on the edge of his property. With a wave of his hand Mel gave permission. The three quickly cut down a number of the lower palm branches. The more nimble Manuel climbed up the tree to get to the higher ones.
They returned to the shed to find sandwiches made by Judy waiting for them. The three workers quickly spread the palms atop the shed and then adjourned to the shade of the fig tree to eat.
“Melvin Seymour Levy!” Judy smiled at Mel playfully when he returned to the kitchen to eat his sandwich. “It looks like you and your new friends are building a succa.”
“Don’t get carried away, Judy. They’re not my friends. I’m only doing this for David. I must be crazy.”
“I think it’s sweet.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Just don’t get all religious on me.”
“Very funny, Judy. Did you call David?”
“Yes, but he didn’t answer. I left him a message.”
“Did you mention the succa?”
“Do you think he’ll come, Judy?”
“I don’t know Mel, he’s pretty stubborn.”
“Yeah,” Mel sighed. “He got that from me.”
As it got dark, Mel signaled to the three workers and they hopped into his car. Mel drove them back to the stadium parking lot where he had picked them up that morning.
“Thank you, señor,” Jose said when Mel stuffed a handful of bills into his hand to be divided among the three.
“No problem. You know, if you’re looking for more work...”
“Yes, señor?” “Well, there’s still more yard work to be done and I’ll need some help to decorate the succa.
Same time tomorrow?”
They nodded and Mel drove off.
The three huddled together. Another idea was forming.
The next day the trio came with backpacks.
Probably their lunch, Mel thought. They must not like Judy’s sandwiches. Mel left them to their yard work and he went inside to try and call David again.
“I went out and put up some decorations in your succa,” Judy told Mel. “Nothing fancy, just some old posters I had in the basement from when I taught Sunday school at the temple years ago, and various old Rosh Hashana cards I found.”
“Great,” Mel said unenthusiastically. “But let’s see if the kid comes first.”
“Oh, and I also found this beautiful poster your grandfather once gave us years ago to hang in our succa – if we ever made one. It’s an Ushpizy chart? Do you know what that is?
“It’s called Ushpizin,” Mel answered quite annoyed. He had grown up in a religious home, so he wasn’t completely ignorant. “It’s some  sort of old tradition to invite biblical guests into your succa each day of the holiday.”
“Well, it’s a very nice poster, so I hung it in your succa.”
“Whatever,” Mel sighed. He didn’t have patience for old traditions.
Judy peered out the kitchen window.
“There seems to be some commotion out there in the succa. Maybe you should go check it out.”
Mel hurried out to the shed. What were those Mexicans up to now? He couldn’t believe what he saw. Next to Judy’s posters from Israel and the Rosh Hashana cards they had hung a giant Mexican flag they had brought.
“You like it, señor?” Jose asked hesitantly. “If not, we can take it down. No problem.”
Mel couldn’t help but laugh. “No, I kind of like it. It’s nice. Muy bueno.”
The three proceeded to take out various decorations from their bags. They hung colorful Christmas colored streamers across the length of the succa. Mel smiled. It was really starting to look like a succa – a Mexican succa, but a succa nonetheless.
He then noticed the Ushpizin chart Judy had put up. He had a faint memory of his grandfather saying the passages welcoming the patriarch Abraham on the first night of Succot. He began to study the names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses... Manuel came up behind him and started examining the poster too. Mel stepped away and went back into the house. Manuel pulled out a pencil from his pocket and started drawing something on the poster.
AS THE days went on, Jose, Pepe and Manuel had become so intrigued by the holiday that they kept asking Mel questions. “Why do you sit in this hut? What is this palm branch I see the kid in the poster waving? What is this holiday all about?”
Mel went inside and studied the Internet pages carefully. He remembered the basics of the holiday, but wasn’t completely sure. When he was ready, he explained to them that after Moses and the Israelites came out of Egypt, they wandered 40 years in the desert. During their travels, they made little huts to protect themselves from the elements. To remember this event and to show faith and appreciation to God, Jews make little huts outside their homes called succot and sit in them for a week. That seemed to satisfy them. They seemed to be able to identify with that. They also, much to Mel’s surprise, could identify all the biblical figures on the Ushpizin honored guests chart with their names in Spanish.
Mel printed more and more pages off the Internet, both in Spanish and in English. When the succa was done, Mel found other odd jobs for them to do in and around the house, and on their breaks they would read the pages while they drank cold water in the succa. Mel moved the picnic table into the succa so the guys could have their lunch there. Soon Mel began to join them for lunch. This went on for a number of days.
Mel made a special trip up to LA to buy a week’s worth of kosher deli sandwiches just for David. With every passing day, his heart sank a little more with no sign of David. At least Jose, Pepe, and Manuel were enjoying the kosher sandwiches.
Judy tried to convince Mel that they didn’t need any more help around the garden anymore and that maybe it was also time for him to take down the succa.
“I can’t take down the succa now,” Mel protested. Succot isn’t over yet. Besides, I’ve left messages for David every day and he left a message on our answering machine yesterday saying he would come by sometime this week to check out our succa. The guys and I will take it down in a couple of days, after Succot is over.”
That afternoon in the succa, the four of them were enjoying the deli sandwiches. Manuel rolled up his rye bread like a tortilla. The Angels playoff game was playing in the background on Jose’s small transistor radio – this time it was the Spanish broadcast.
“This would go great with frijoles – you know, refried beans,” Pepe said, taking a bite of his salami sandwich.
“Then it’s a good thing we are outside,” Jose replied.
They all laughed. Mel bent over and pulled out four cans of Dos Equis from the cooler by his feet. They popped open their cans simultaneously.
Salud!” Jose said raising his beer.
L’haim!” Mel replied “To the succa de sueños!” Pepe declared.
“To the Angels!” Manuel shouted.
“No, no” Mel corrected. “To the Anjeles!”
The others cheered and took another swig from their beers.
Mel put his beer down and let out a deep sigh.
Jose signaled to Pepe to turn off the radio.
“Don’t worry, señor, your hijo will come.” Jose said in a hopeful tone. “Si, si, like in the movie.
If you build it, he will come. You built the succa, now he will come.”
“Forget it.” Mel said, waving them off with his hand. “Succot is almost over and he didn’t come. That only works in the movies.”
“No, you’re wrong señor!” Manuel protested.
“He will come, I know it!”
“Oh yeah,” Mel said skeptically. “How do you know?”
“The Ushpizin,” he said, pointing to Judy’s chart. “We have been sitting here all week looking at it.”
Mel was confused.
“Yes,” Pepe added. “Each day of the holiday you are supposed to invite a different person from the Bible to come to your succa. You know, Abraham, Isaac, Jacobo...”
“Yeah, yeah. So what’s your point?”
“Today is the last day of the holiday; look at the chart and tell me who we invite today.”
Mel got up and went over to the chart.
“David. King David.”
El Rey David!” the three answered in unison.
“Oh, come on, guys,” Mel consoled them. “I know you worked hard to build this succa and I know you want my son to come back and visit, but it’s not going to happen. It just won’t happen.”
“Why, señor? Why don’t you think he is going to come?” Jose asked.
Mel sat back down and rubbed his forehead.
He looked around the table at the three Mexicans. Should he tell them? “It’s like this,” Mel started. “I grew up in a pretty religious home. I went to Jewish day school and even yeshiva, but then I went off to college and married Judy and stopped being religious.”
The three nodded. They seemed to understand, so Mel continued.
“Judy and I decided we would raise our son to be Jewish, but not religious. He could live life to the fullest, you know, not have to worry about keeping kosher all the time or not driving a car on Saturday. You know what I mean?”
The three continued nodding, so Mel kept going.
“And so, because we are Zionistic, we sent him to go work on a kibbutz in Israel, but he somehow ended up in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem over there, and now he is so religious that he keeps strictly kosher and won’t even eat in my house anymore.”
“And it bothers you that he keeps kosher?” Pepe asked innocently.
“Well, no. I can’t fault him for that. Keeping kosher is a good thing, but does he have to dress like that with the big black hat and the tzizit flying out from under his shirt?”
“So, it’s his way of dressing that bothers you?” Manuel asked.
“No, it’s not that either. It’s just that he’s so, so... so different.”
“Different, señor?” Jose asked. “We are different than you? Is there something wrong with that?”
“No, no, no,” Mel backtracked. “It’s just that when David was a kid, we used to do things together, go to the ball games, play catch, you know father-son stuff.”
“And now you can’t do that anymore?” Pepe asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” Mel stuttered.
Mel looked around at the three Mexicans, but they all had their eyes closed as if they were in deep meditation. A shout from outside the succa broke the silence.
“Mel!” Judy cried out from the house. “Mel! Come quickly!”
Mel ran out of the succa to the front of the house where a bearded young man in a black hat, black pants and a white shirt was hugging Judy.
“Get off my wife!” Mel yelled.
The surprised man turned around.
“Dad, it’s me.”
David hugged his dad and Mel slowly returned the embrace.
“It’s good to be home,” David said. “It’s been too long.”
“Yeah, too long,” Mel agreed, still recovering from the shock.
“Dad, I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. I got all your messages. I didn’t realize how important it was for you that I come.”
“It’s all right, David. I shouldn’t have pressured you. You’re grown up now. You can make your own decisions.”
“Yes, but ‘Honor thy mother and thy father’ is one of the Ten Commandments.”
Mel was about to say something harsh to his Bible-quoting son, but Judy’s stern look held him back.
“Yeah, and don’t you forget it,” Mel said, playfully punching him in the arm.
“You hungry, David?” Judy asked.
“Well, that’s what I came for – to eat in dad’s succa.”
“Great!” Mel said.
“Wait till you meet the guys.”
“Guys?” David asked. “You have friends over, dad?”
“Yeah, they’re from down south,” he smirked.
“San Diego?”
“No, a bit further south than that,” Mel chuckled. “You’ll meet them now. They’re out in the succa.”
David followed Mel to where the storage shed used to be. He couldn’t believe his dad had actually made a succa. Judy followed them with some cold soft drinks.
“They’re not here!” Mel exclaimed looking in the succa. An Angels cap was resting on the picnic table.
“Oh, I’m sure they’re around here somewhere, Mel,” Judy said. “They couldn’t have just vanished into thin air. Look, one of them even left his baseball cap here.”
Mel ran around the yard calling their names, but to no avail.
“They just disappeared.” Mel said in disbelief when he returned to the succa.
“Oh, come on, Mel,” Judy said. “They’re just Mexicans.”
Mel gave Judy a stern look, but said nothing.
“What’s this?” David asked, studying the Ushpizin poster on the succa wall.
“Your mom put that poster up,” Mel answered.
"No, not the poster, what’s on the poster.
Come look.”
Mel and Judy came over to see what David was pointing at.
“Do you know who the first Ushpizin guest is?” David asked rhetorically. “It’s Abraham. In the picture here he is shown showing hospitality to the three nomads who came to his tent.”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember that story from Hebrew school,” Mel grumbled. “Those three guys looked like Arabian travelers, but they turned out to be angels sent by God to Abraham.
“Yes, dad. That’s exactly right. But somebody here has tampered with your Ushpizin poster.”
“What do mean, tampered with?” Mel asked.
“You see here,” David pointed to a specific spot. “Someone has drawn Mexican sombreros on Abraham’s three angels. See?”
Mel leaned over. David was right. There was old, bearded Abraham serving food to his three wandering guests, but atop their heads were not turbans, but pencil-drawn sombreros. Mel had to admit it was kind of funny. It was probably Manuel, the one who fancied himself an artist, who had done it.
MEL SHOOK his head and laughed. “Those crazy guys – they’re probably out in the yard somewhere.”
He was about to exit the succa to go look for them again, but Judy elbowed him indicating that he should say something to his son first.
“David, I have a friend who works for the Angels front office. He can get probably get us playoff tickets for next week, if you want to go? You still like baseball, right?”
“Yeah, sure, dad. That’ll be great.”
“Great! I’ll go call him now.” Mel smiled and went back into the house.
Judy picked up the baseball cap from the table and examined it.
“David, what’s this?” “The big A? That’s the Angels’ logo, mom.”
“No, not that. What’s written here on the brim of the cap? It’s in Spanish. Come on, David. You took Spanish in school. What does it say?”
David read slowly.
“Si lo contruyes, vendrá.”
“But what does that mean?” Judy asked impatiently.
David looked up and smiled quizzically at his mother.
“If you build it, he will come.”
The writer has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University.