I’ve found my in­ner builder

Suc­cot re­minds us that life isn’t all about brain work — there’s divin­ity in man­ual labour

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - GE­OF­FREY AL­DER­MAN

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.

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