I’ve found my inner builder
Succot reminds us that life isn’t all about brain work — there’s divinity in manual labour
WE ARE NOW celebrating my favourite month in the Jewish calendar. I look forward, not so much to the New Year itself, nor to Yom Kippur, a fast which, I have to say, does not resonate with me nearly as deeply as that of the Ninth of Av, when I reflect on Jewish nationhood that was lost in so much blood and then — in so much more blood — found again. No. What I look forward to in the month of Tishri is the chance to show off my skills as a builder, a man of practical as well as scholarly bent. This is the month in which I erect my succah.
Genetically I do not seem to have inherited many of the skills that might, even in the loosest possible sense of the word, be defined as pertaining to the worlds of the engineer, the craftsman or the technician. This is surprising. Not least because, both on my father’s side and my mother’s, I can claim to be descended from women and men of proven practical abilities.
One of my grandfathers was a master tailor who married an expert seamstress. The other was (would you believe?) a maker of ships’ compasses and the binnacles on which the compasses were mounted. He later became a policeman and, later still, a shoe-maker. One of his sons (my uncle) made at school some remarkable artefacts, including a set of imposing brass fire-irons, which we still have and use; he later became a radio technician.
Alas, none of these inestimable talents seem to have been passed on to me. At school I made a tin cup that fell apart at the seams on its first use, and a wooden reading lamp that became a family joke. At university I chose the humanities. When I purchased my first car, and attempted to topup the windscreen-washer reservoir myself, it was only the eagle-eye of an apprehensive next-door neighbour (a former army tank-driver) that prevented me from putting water into the brake fluid. Nowadays, whenever I suggest that I might carry out a minor household repair, my wife (bless her!) is fond of reminding me how an attempt on my part to deal with a faulty washing-machine resulted in an electrical explosion of not inconsiderable (and very audible) proportions, and of the occasion on which a set of book-shelves that I had wall-mounted in my study collapsed within hours of erection, taking some of the wall with it.
OK. So you get the picture. I am just not technically gifted. But I can build a succah.
This talent I owe entirely to my father-in-law, Eliezer Freed (1910-76). He was not only a self-taught BA of the University of London in ancient, medieval and modern Hebrew, a writer of children’s fiction and a poet, he was also a technician and an inventor. Indeed, during the Second World War he invented a gas-proof perambulator the design of which was so masterful that the patent was compulsorily purchased by the British government (a story that was even reported by the JC at the time).
One day, shortly before my September 1973 marriage to his younger daughter, Eli called me aside for “a private word”. My heart — understandably — leapt into my mouth. “When you and Marion are married,” he said rather sternly, “you’ll need to build your own succah.”
He stared into the far distance: “I am going to show you how.” And he did, in his back garden, explaining how the necessary construction work could be minimised by using the angled walls of the house wherever possible, and how, for a few pounds, one could buy from a local timber yard the beams needed to complete the framework, tying down with string (metal must not be used, on halachic grounds) the thin fencing timbers on which the schach — usually laurel leaves — are used to complete the roof. Eli used plywood and an old housedoor to complete the sides of the succah; Marion and I use canvas.
So, in the month of Tishri, Alderman the scholar makes way for Alderman the builder. And even if the frame is now permanent (resting all year round on the patio floor), the succah must nonetheless be rebuilt every year — a task which I can still accomplish successfully and unaided.
Is this, I wonder, part of the reason for the festival of Succot? To remind us all that we live by the hand as well as by the brain, and that manual labour possesses its own divinely-ordained dignity and purpose.