KEEP DREAMING: Out of the closet, into the sukkah

But this year, in an effort to keep Autonomies at bay, let us begin imagining what it might be like to invite instead those dissimilar to ourselves.

YOUTH BUILD a Succa in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
YOUTH BUILD a Succa in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s time for me to come out of the closet. What made me realize that sharing my personal story may just be of national importance is the new HOT television series Autonomies. It takes place in a dystopian alternate Israel, several years after a civil war has literally divided the country in two: the secular state of Israel with Tel Aviv as its capital and the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Jerusalem under haredi rule.
An impenetrable wall separates the two. Those wishing to pass from west to east are subjected to a thorough search to ensure that nothing “unkosher” – and food is only at the beginning of the list – is brought in with them.
It’s a frightening scenario and one many might dismiss as a far-fetched overstatement of where we are heading. Not me. I’m already not allowed to walk around with my smartphone exposed when visiting my daughter in her haredi village near Safed.
There you have it. That’s the admission. One of my children, brought up in a strongly ideological Conservative/Masorti home, has migrated to the other side. I won’t list here the interminable inventory of strictures that have become the boundaries of her family’s life. But those not part of her community – including many learned and observant outsiders – would find it difficult to associate many of the constraints passionately embraced with the Judaism they know.
The bottom line is that she will no longer spend Shabbat with us, despite our insistence that we would happily observe the day in accordance with her understanding of Jewish law. The wall depicted on TV may not be visible, but it’s certainly being erected, one restriction at a time.
Leave that for a moment and join me at another drama being played out before our eyes. The setting: a late end-of-the-summer afternoon. The huppah (wedding canopy) has been staged to frame the loving couple against the radiance of the setting sun. The ceremony begins with words of Torah, and one after another, close friends and relatives are called up to recite the sheva brachot – the seven blessings integral to the occasion.
But there’s a thickening to this plot. Those chanting the blessings include women as well as men, the officiant isn’t a rabbi, and the groom, our daughter-in-law’s brother, was born in Russia to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother and never converted.
That didn’t stop him from declaring to his beloved as he placed a ring upon her finger that she was now consecrated unto him “in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.” Nor did it seem to bother any of those assembled who broke out in joyful applause when he shattered the wine glass in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple.
An Israeli wedding. One of thousands now taking place every year as more and more young couples are opting to marry outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, even if they then have to fly to Cyprus to legalize their matrimony.
SOME CHOOSE this route out of antipathy to the religious establishment. Others have no choice, primarily those among the more than 400,000 Israeli citizens with Soviet roots who are members of Jewish families but whose identity is listed as “other” in Israel’s population registry.
This brings me to our third vignette. A real-life legal drama draws to an end after running for a year and a half. Last week, the Jerusalem District Court published its ruling ordering the Interior Ministry to register as Jewish a woman who had converted through the independent Orthodox Giyur K’Halacha court system. Though she and the thousands of others like her will still not be allowed to marry here, sociologically the decision is of utmost importance.
A report released by the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs disclosed that 38% of the nearly 300,000 immigrants to Israel who left the country over the past decade and a half were from the former Soviet Union. Prominent among the reasons they offer for forsaking their homeland was the privation of feeling at home, a consequence of not being able either to marry or die here as Jews. While far from resolving these matters, the court’s decision does signal to this segment of the population that even if the chief rabbi is not prepared to embrace them, elements in Israeli society are.
Other elements, of course, are not – my daughter among them. Which brings us full circle.
Next week we will be sitting peacefully in our sukkot to be reminded of what Typhoon Mangkhut and Hurricane Florence have just made brutally clear to millions: Life is fragile as are the structures we build to shelter ourselves. A state is no exception.
Twice ours has fallen, ravaged by the acrimony raging between those dwelling within it. A house divided against itself cannot stand. A family that feuds will be torn asunder.
Determined to keep mine intact, I will be spending part of the holiday with my haredi child and her family in their sukkah. Not everyone will have such an opportunity to engage with others so different from themselves. But all might take advantage of the custom of ushpizin, inviting others in to sit with them. Traditionally, the guests are the seven great forefathers of our people. But this year, in an effort to keep Autonomies at bay, let us begin imagining what it might be like to invite instead those dissimilar to ourselves.
With enough imagination, perhaps by next Sukkot, we will have figured out how to erect a massive sukkah in Kikar Rabin and another in Mea She’arim where the diversity of our society might come together with everyone being made to feel at home.
Naïve? Absolutely. But ultimately it’s going to be either that or the wall.
The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel executive and represents the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement within Israel’s national institutions. The views expressed are his own. [email protected]