My Word: Solidarity during a corona-era Sukkot

Yom Kippur in the corona-era was not the same as in years past.

Decorating a sukkah in Jerusalem: A celebration of impermanence. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Decorating a sukkah in Jerusalem: A celebration of impermanence.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Moving on, moving out, staying home. What a strange period this is. Barely have we finished the intense soul-searching that goes with the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur than we begin the festive Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles.
Yom Kippur in the corona-era was not the same as in years past. Israel always shuts down for the Day of Atonement and there is always a special silence that comes from having no cars, no planes, no radio or TV broadcasts. This year, however, the silence was compounded by “the closure,” the second lockdown that in many ways is worse than the first.
I prayed in the park close to my apartment. I have been praying with this group of neighbors for some six months now and I realized with a shock that there are some people whose full faces I have never seen or seen only fleetingly.
There was a certain comfort in the togetherness of community. Most of the liturgical tunes were familiar. Hearing and learning new tunes was exciting. As many have noted, the makeshift minyanim that have sprung up have drawn together neighbors from different backgrounds.
Maybe it was my imagination or the silence of the day, but it seemed to me the entire congregation, spread out as we were around the park, shouted with extra force the line in the Avinu Malkenu prayer: “Our Father, Our King, withhold the plague from Your inheritance.” And just like that, the day was over. We sang, “Next year in Jerusalem, rebuilt!” and some added “Without masks!” and we went home.
Many have a custom to begin building their sukkah – the temporary booth – just after Yom Kippur ends. The sukkot are a reminder of the dwellings of the children of Israel as they crossed the desert for 40 years following the Exodus from Egypt. They don’t just remind us of the journey itself, they represent vulnerability. A roofless, temporary structure – the message of frailty is built-in.
In the year 5781 – or 2020, depending on the calendar you use – almost everyone understands the feeling of insecurity. Existence seems as rickety as the wooden booths.
For many, the hardest part of the holiday will be the inability to host guests in their sukkah. This is traditionally a time of hospitality. Spare an extra thought this year for the alone and the lonely who will not share even one festive meal. Let them know you’re thinking of them.
Many families have the tradition of asking everyone in the sukkah if they could invite one guest from any time in history, who would it be?
Usually my answer is Doña Gracia, the remarkable woman who used her wealth and brains some 500 years ago to save Jews during the Inquisition. This year, I’d love to ask my maternal grandfather, Joe Cornbleet, what it was like to survive the Spanish flu in the epidemic just over a century ago in Britain.
SIX MONTHS ago – time can go quickly after all – I interviewed writer and thinker Micah Goodman. This week, I phoned him again, to hear his take on Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Like me, Goodman found comfort in the temporary prayer groups that had sprung up on streets, balconies and in parks.
“On the one hand, we’re very isolated, but on the other there is also a sense of closeness,” he says. “Because of the [regulations of] isolation, we couldn’t be separated indoors in synagogues. It was like Sukkot came early this year and said: ‘Go outside.’” Goodman, whose wife is a nurse, notes that ironically, despite the regulation to stay at home, the only place you can feel really safe is outside in the open air – wearing masks and keeping a distance. “Suddenly, everyone was praying together, without the usual separation that takes place in synagogues. And we see the social impact of that – of people on the streets, in the parks, singing together. It means minimum isolation in the period of isolation. It’s the beautiful irony of this time. Because prayers have left the physical boundaries of synagogues, it’s almost the opposite of being locked away. At a time when we are most isolated, we are also most together.
“It’s very local and very powerful,” Goodman says. “We open up to our neighbors and community.” The theme of Sukkot, Goodman says, is “celebrating impermanence.”
“On Sukkot you’re commanded to live in an impermanent place. Yet we decorate the sukkah, which means we decorate something impermanent. And we make an effort to do that.”
Western intuition is that the more permanent something is, the more you invest in it; the sukkah is the opposite idea, he says.
One of the things that corona is doing to the Western mindset “is the gigantic reminder of the deep truth of impermanence,” he says. Consumerism is about always having things that are new and fresh – which, in Goodman’s opinion, is why Western societies make older people less visible. “Corona is a reminder of impermanence, not just because of death but also because big companies are collapsing, organizations are failing. Everything is fragile.” SPEAKING THE day after the US presidential debate, Goodman and I could not ignore the world beyond the borders of our small, local communities in Israel. Goodman was disgusted by the debate, but not surprised.
“In America, Republicans and Democrats really think and feel differently about the world. Israelis don’t have that. In Israel, you don’t have to know a person’s politics... In America, shuls are split between Trump supporters and Democrats. In Israel, there is what I call ‘the unspoken consensus.’” Goodman, whose latest book, The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, is due to be published in English next month, says that while Israel is divided, Israelis share more common ground than arguments.
In America, the divisions on issues like abortion or guns, for example, are so deep “they don’t have shared moral ground,” Goodman says. “If you live in California or Oklahoma, you are living in a different moral ecology. You have different moral intuitions; what feels right and wrong is radically different.” This is amplified by social media and different “filter bubbles.”
“In Israel, I think we share the same basic moral intuitions. We’re all living in a shared moral ecology.”
This is something new, he says, noting that in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, there was extreme ideological polarization – the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin being the ultimate expression of that. The settler movement was ideological, as was the peace movement. “They couldn’t look at each other,” he says. Also the topic of state vs religion; religious vs secular loomed large.
“Today, most Israelis agree on most issues. Most Israelis on the Right are not messianic ideologically and most Israelis on the Left don’t believe that peace is around the corner.
“Almost all [Jewish] Israelis like Judaism. They like tradition. But they don’t like the religious establishment. Most Israelis, 70%, share the same feelings.”
So why doesn’t our politics reflect this?
Goodman’s answer is that while in places like the UK and US, the politics are divided because the countries are divided, in Israel “the divisiveness of politics is not a reflection of a divided society. It actually masks that the society is not really that divided.” We have extreme groups, but they are just that: extreme.
Pre-Sukkot, Goodman’s message can be summed up as celebrate safely what you have in common. Spatial distance doesn’t mean there are barriers.
I decided to metaphorically invite him to dine with me in the sukkah. There’s room for everyone, at least in spirit.