Let’s Meet in the Sukkah

My friend Alan was telling me yesterday about his evening. He had signed up for an event in a stranger’s sukkah in Jerusalem. Along with some of his older kids, he went to join other Israelis in “learning and delving deep, and perhaps even arguing – but together – about what Israeli, Jewish and democratic identity really is.” That was how the program is described by its organizers, “Shomrim al haBayit haMeshutaf” (Guarding our Shared Home) and “929” (the non-denominational educational platform promoting a chapter a day of Bible study). There were open sukkot all around Israel during the holiday, Alan urged, and so I found one twenty minutes from my home, and went. 

Hagit was our host. She lives in HaSolelim, a secular kibbutz on the northern fringe of the Jezreel Valley, founded in the same year as my religious moshav, just as Israel was born. I placed the wine we had brought on the heavily-laden refreshment table. Hagit cautioned offhandedly that her sukkah was not kosher, a fact that Iris, the evening’s moderator who had introduced herself as the rabbi of a liberal, humanistic congregation in Haifa, affirmed. I was sitting next to Iris throughout the evening; as she handed out the source sheets she had prepared, she explained to the participants that she has been a professor of Bible for upwards of thirty years, and our time together would be spent discussing texts. She had gorgeous nails, and a rattail haircut, and I really longed to ask her about the rattail because she seemed an open and generous person who would welcome any question, but she had already launched the program. She asked us all to share what was permanent in our lives, and what, like the sukkah hut in which we were gathered, was transient. 

Dov was sitting on the other side of the circle, a passionate man in his early seventies. He quickly jumped in. “I’ll tell you what’s permanent for me: my love for Miri, and my belief that Israel is a state of all of its citizens, Palestinians included. I’m a Marxist and an atheist, but the Tel Aviv I’ve lived in for thirty years isn’t the same Tel Aviv now.”

“No, it isn’t,” Miri agreed, close to tears. “What’s permanent to me is Dov, and my family, and traditions are very permanent and important to me. I never pray on Yom Kippur, but this Yom Kippur, toward the end of the day, I felt compelled for some reason to go down to the Habad service on the street and say a memorial prayer for my parents. And my friends, people who I’ve known and demonstrated with for years, ruined that for me. They screamed and tore apart the whole set-up. You know, Dov doesn’t look like the type, but he cried and cried that night. I hope that what happened during this year’s Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv is ara’i (fleeting, transient).”  

Eilon was probably the youngest one there, in his thirties I would guess. He came from Jerusalem to visit his family who live in a religious yishuv nearby. He was serious and intense, earnest about protesting judicial reform, one of the two men there who was wearing a kippah, and the most pessimistic. “If we’re going to divide like we did thousands of years ago into two kingdoms, ‘Yisrael’ (the left, secular, symbolized by Tel Aviv and Haifa) and ‘Yehudah’ (the religious, right, symbolized by Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria), then I don’t see a future for Israel, and I came to talk about that.”

Ronya and her husband Alon were far more cheerful. Alon’s t-shirt said ‘HumanBeing,’ and he spoke for a long time in a very calm, measured tone. “Permanence is family. What we are fully confident in is how temporary these divides amongst us are. The loudest voices are the extremes, and we are here to represent the majority, the moderates, who may disagree but will be civil about it and work to find solutions.” Ronya had a beautiful smile, and added that what was permanent for her was her willingness to listen to others. “Like, for instance, I belong to a large group of Israeli women from all walks of life, Haredim and Arabs included, and we meet up every Rosh Hodesh in a different location. I had participated in a demonstration of the “shefachot” (lit. maidservants, where women dress in the red-hooded costumes from The Handmaid’s Tale to symbolize their fear of a dystopian state where they might be silenced and oppressed), and was talking about it at our meet-up. I was surprised to hear how some of the religious women were deeply offended by our protest. But they heard me, and I heard them.” 

Iris instructed us to form chavrutot and discuss the verses in Genesis 12, where God instructed Abraham to leave his land and birthplace, and travel to a land that God would show him. We were to talk about what “eretz” (land) and “moledet” (birthplace) meant to us in the context of those verses. First to speak in our congenial group of three was Dana, a vivacious gym teacher with a young son, who made aliyah from Russia when she was twelve. She had denied her moledet for a long while, she said, determined to be fully Israeli, becoming an officer in the IDF and moving to a kibbutz. “I know what tyranny is,” she said, “and I fear it here as well, but I cannot imagine it would be as bad as Russia. But I’m starting to consider whether I belong here.” 

Eliezer Yaffe, from nearby moshav Nahalal, challenged her on that. He shared with us that if Israel fell, then so did he: “I have no other land.” His moledet is one and the same as his eretz, unlike his famous grandfather and namesake, who emigrated to Israel as a young man during the Second Aliyah and founded both Nahalal and Tnuva, the first agricultural cooperative. I asked Eliezer if he felt the same existential threat now as he did before leading his soldiers in battle during the Six Day War. “No,” he said firmly. “You and I and Dana are here, talking. That was war. This is a family spat.” 

We shared easily, different tribes within one large family. Miri said that was the beauty of Israel, unlike Armenia, which she had just visited. “There, you go into any restaurant, amazing food, but it’s all the same. Here, I go to my sister-in-law who is Moroccan, and the food she serves! Gan Eden. She comes to me, maybe she doesn’t like my food as much, but it’s different, and that’s the beauty of it.” Chava scolded her from across the circle, “Don’t knock your gefilte fish. Who doesn’t love gefilte fish?” (Chava is Tunisian.) 

When we gathered once again as a group, some challenged that sure, this was a lovely gathering, but that was only because we didn’t talk of any substance. We didn’t brainstorm how to reform the judiciary, or whether it should be reformed at all, or the unease that brought us and many others together in these types of forums. But most of the participants felt that the evening had given them hope, that really, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis want to get along and are willing to compromise so that our tribes can live together harmoniously in a Jewish, democratic state.  

One more time, around the circle, for whoever wanted to part from the sukkah with thoughts of permanence and transience. “Generations come and go, but the land is forever,” quoted Bracha, a retiree from across the street.  “The land, and the Torah. I am not observant, but I love learning Torah, and that is my permanence.” 

It was my turn. “Before we arrived this evening, I spoke with my son who was heading with his soldiers to guard those who had come to pray at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem. I asked him if all was well, and he responded as he always does: zchut, Ema (it’s an honor, Mom). He heard where we were going, and he gave the same response: walla, zchut. My “permanence” is the zchut that I feel to be here, at this place and in this time, in this land and with you all. What should be “ara’i,” for all of us, is a sense of despair. I think of Joseph, who all but tore the Children of Israel apart, but was also the one who united them together. If we believe that we can ruin everything that we have built, we must also believe that we can heal.”

Dov thought about this, and said to us all: “I don’t believe in God, or in being in Joseph’s Tomb, and I wish your son wasn’t there. But I’ll pray for his safety, Tamar, and that is something you can always depend on as permanent with me.” 

As we parted, with sincere hope that we might meet together again and talk more about what unites us, and how we can bridge our divides, I whispered to Miri: “I hope next Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, you can say a prayer for your parents in peace.” And she grasped my arm and said, “What a zchut that would be.” 

Maybe nothing of permanence was achieved in that sukkah, but the temporary warmth of sharing between Jews of different stripes opened and stirred something deep inside us all. I think that was what we were all fundamentally seeking; that was definitely why I had come (thanks, Alan, for pointing me in the right direction). For those frustrated that we offered no solutions, I thought: we can keep at this, and maybe we’ll get there. We ended the night in song, because we are Israelis, and Israelis love to sing together: “Who is the man who desires life? He who guards his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking badly. He who turns away from the bad, seeking out and pursuing only peace” (Psalms 34).

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