For Sukkot, giv­ing thanks

Shar­ing the Jewish hol­i­day con­veys na­ture’s bounty and God’s love

Los Angeles Times - - The World - SANDY BANKS sandy.banks@latimes.com

When I moved here from Ohio 30 years ago, the first friend I made was Yael, the daugh­ter of a rabbi from Is­rael. She had grown up im­mersed in Ju­daism’s rit­u­als, but left or­tho­doxy be­hind when she came to Los An­ge­les, mar­ried a busi­ness­man and set­tled in sub­ur­bia.

Still, ev­ery fall, she would erect a sukkah — a makeshift shel­ter with wooden posts, can­vas walls and leafy roof — next to the swim­ming pool in her back­yard. For seven days, her fam­ily would eat ev­ery meal in­side that shel­ter, in ob­ser­vance of the hol­i­day Sukkot, con­sid­ered in the Jewish faith “the sea­son of our re­joic­ing.”

She had her re­li­gion and I had mine. But this was a hol­i­day I couldn’t help but covet; one that seemed rooted in na­ture’s lim­it­less bounty and in God’s un­fail­ing love.

So I felt blessed this week by an un­ex­pected in­vi­ta­tion to join a fam­ily cel­e­brat­ing Sukkot.

Rachel Malkin’s of­fer was a “thank you,” she said, for my Tues­day col­umn about a group of women who re­paired the crum­bling home of an el­derly, dis­abled woman and her seven adopted chil­dren.

Their story was “de­light­fully in­spir­ing,” she said. Malkin’s story would in­spire me, as well.

Sukkot is one of the most joy­ous hol­i­days on the Jewish cal­en­dar, a cel­e­bra­tion that comes on the heels of the solem­nity of Yom Kip­pur. It com­mem­o­rates the 40 years the Jewish peo­ple wan­dered in the desert wilder­ness on their way from Egypt to Is­rael.

The word “sukkah” means booth, and refers to the tem­po­rary shel­ters Jews lived in as they wan­dered. Jews around the world build sukkahs out­side their homes and, fol­low­ing a bib­li­cal com­mand­ment, spend as much time as pos­si­ble dur­ing the week in­side them.

There are spe­cial prayers and rit­u­als, and for the Ortho­dox, like Malkin, no work is per­mit­ted on the hol­i­day’s first two days. No writ­ing or driv­ing or talk­ing on the phone, no check­ing your e-mail or Face­book page.

It’s a hol­i­day that passes un­no­ticed by non-Jews in most parts of this city, where there are no dec­o­ra­tions or mar­ket spe­cials. But in the Fair­fax district — the heart of the Ortho­dox Jewish pop­u­la­tion in Los An­ge­les — the cel­e­bra­tion is hard to miss.

At night, brightly lit sukkahs shine from drive­ways and front lawns, and fam­i­lies led by men in black suits and broad-brimmed hats crowd the side­walks out­side homes and syn­a­gogues.

I vis­ited Malkin’s home on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon as she wrapped up her hol­i­day prepa­ra­tions. She had jot­ted down a Sukkot primer on the back of an en­ve­lope for me. We talked on her pa­tio shel­ter, fash­ioned from wooden blinds and a canopy of eu­ca­lyp­tus branches.

“We build a sukkah and ‘dwell’ in it 7 days,” she had writ­ten. “It is a mitz­vah to say the bracha ‘bless­ing ’…” She read aloud to me from the Mach­zor, the Sukkot prayer man­ual, trac­ing the He­brew words with her fin­ger as I fol­lowed. She had down­loaded a wor­ship sched­ule from a lo­cal rabbi for me and saved an advertisement for a “High End Com­plete Kosher Sukkah, from $399, best price in town.”

She wanted me to un­der­stand the hol­i­day, its con­text and con­ven­tions.

I wanted to un­der­stand Malkin, a mer­cu­rial ac­tress now con­signed by her own be­liefs to cov­ered hair and mod­est dress.

Her story is fa­mil­iar in many re­li­gions. A child grows up obliv­i­ous, or re­sis­tant, to parental tra­di­tions. Time passes, she cir­cles back, drawn by un­ex­pected obli­ga­tions, un­bid­den bonds.

Malkin grew up in Detroit, one of five chil­dren of Sol A. Dann, a lawyer and com­mu­nity ac­tivist with a star­tlingly di­verse per­sona:

In the 1940s, Dann helped birth the nation of Is­rael as part of the U.N. com­mit­tee pre­par­ing its le­gal briefs. In the 1950s, he was a thorn in the side of U.S. au­tomak­ers, un­cov­er­ing cor­po­rate in­com­pe­tence and malfea­sance. In the 1960s, he served on the le­gal team de­fend­ing Jack Ruby in the murder of Lee Har­vey Oswald. In the 1970s, when Malkin moved with her hus­band to a Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tion in Ari­zona, Dann would visit, “bring­ing matzo and light­ing can­dles,” she said.

“He was larger than life — a wise and won­der­ful man,” in his daugh­ter’s eyes. And when he died in 1975, she was struck by all his ab­sence would re­quire.

“I watched the com­mu­nity gather, the sup­port, the rit­u­als… I thought: Who’s go­ing to do this now that he’s gone?” Grad­u­ally, her own faith evolved.

She be­gan by not writ­ing on the Sab­bath. She stopped us­ing the phone, then stopped driv­ing. Her sib­lings, spread around the coun­try, were sep­a­rately pur­su­ing a sim­i­lar process.

“It was a part of us,” Malkin told me. “ Ne­shama,” she said. He­brew for a per­son’s soul.

We talked un­til sun­set in her fam­ily’s sukkah. Her hus­band, Michael, and two of their sons, Abe and Ben­jamin, joined us. The boys had flown in for the hol­i­day from Bos­ton and New York. Daugh­ter Molly would spend this first night with her hus­band’s fam­ily. Their old­est son, David, was cel­e­brat­ing in New York with his wife.

Michael, a re­tired psy­chi­a­trist, doesn’t share his wife’s Ortho­dox lean­ings. He was raised a sec­u­lar Jew; his fa­ther was a jour­nal­ist.

But Rachel’s re­li­gious trans­for­ma­tion hasn’t fun­da­men­tally changed the woman he fell in love with on their first date, 43 years ago. “We’re com­ple­men­tary,” he said, smil­ing across the ta­ble at her. “We com­pro­mise.”

She smiled back and tossed out a He­brew phrase that trans­lates to peace in the house. “This is a hol­i­day he likes,” she said. “I cook a lot.”

Her chil­dren honor her be­liefs, but she ex­pects them to fol­low their own spir­i­tual process. “Do my kids do this now? Did they do it be­fore? Will I al­ways do it?” Malkin raises her hands, as if in sup­pli­ca­tion to a larger force.

She un­der­stands the power of rit­ual to shape us. “How do you plant a tree? You can’t do it just by words,” she said.

What would her fa­ther think of her evo­lu­tion, I ask her.

She shuf­fles through her hand­writ­ten notes, then ex­plains to me the Sukkot bless­ing Arba Minim: A cit­rus fruit na­tive to Is­rael is embed­ded in a sheaf of branches, then shaken and waved in ev­ery di­rec­tion, sym­bol­iz­ing the om­nipres­ence of God.

“I have the feel­ing of my fa­ther’s hands around my hands when­ever I shake it,” she said. Her eyes grow moist and her nose red­dens.

And I sense that his pres­ence is as real to her then as the eu­ca­lyp­tus branches over our head, the set­ting sun and the glim­mer of the ris­ing moon be­yond.

SUKKAH:

Gina Fer­azzi

The struc­tures com­mem­o­rate the shel­ters Jews used while wan­der­ing from Egypt to Is­rael.

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