The weeklong harvest holiday of Sukkot began Wednesday. 22. For Sukkot, it’s traditional for families to visit (or build) a sukkah, a small hut constructed of wood, cloth and other natural materials. The sukkah’s temporary nature is a reminder of the tents the Israelites lived while wondering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. A sukkah must have three sides and the sky and the stars must be visible through the branches (skakh) that make up the roof. Decorations include flowers, gourds, the kids’ artwork and fruits and vegetables. (Ellen’s family discovered that hanging hot peppers and lemons discourages squirrels from nibbling on the décor.)
During Sukkot, it’s traditional to eat meals in the sukkah and invite guests to visit. In fact, Ellen’s daughter, Jessica, had her naming ceremony (and the bagels and fish tray party) in the family’s sukkah.
When you run out of regular sukkah guests, you can invite the ushpizin (Aramaic for “visitors”). These mystical visitors are the Jewish patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah).
This custom, much like reserving a glass of wine for the Prophet Elijah on Passover, has its roots in Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. Kabbalah teaches that the sukkah generates enough spiritual energy to summon these seven big mahoffs from their place in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) to partake in the delights of the sukkah. Some Sephardic Jews set aside an ornately decorated chair in their sukkah, ready for the ushpizin’s visit.
The Word Mavens teach that you can invite the spirits of your own ancestors into the sukkah — your grandparents and great-grandparents who have contributed to your Jewish heritage and knowledge. The way her dreams have been lately, Joyce would have needed a whole set of chairs in the sukkah — her ancestors have been popping up in her dreams:
In one, Joyce’s Grandpop Henry was sitting behind her at the movies munching on popcorn. In the next dream, Mitzi, her mother-in-law, was chatting with Joyce’s dad in the kitchen– clear as day, in full color. In another, Joyce was riding a motorcycle and Mitzi was sitting behind her — holding on and enjoying the ride.
They must have gotten the memo about it being the season for ushpizin.
Lying right next to her in bed, husband Ted was not exempt from these ancestor visits. In fact, Joyce’s mother (who died when Joyce was 8 years old) paid him a visit. She reached beyond the clear plastic wall that separated them and he held her hands. (Don’t even try to psychoanalyze the meaning of these dreams.)
Ellen is hoping for a nocturnal visit from her maternal grandparents, who died before she was adult enough to realize that the chance to talk to them wouldn’t be there forever.
Myer Elgart emigrated to America from Kiev in the Ukraine, all alone at age 17. How did he get from Kiev to the S.S. Bremen that left from Germany? How did he put himself through pharmacy school, not speaking the language? For years Myer and Mary owned and operated a drugstore on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It had an old-fashioned marble-topped soda fountain counter, where Grandmom Mary would hand scoop ice cream for milkshakes, make grilled cheese sandwiches and dole out advice on dating (“he’s a no goodnik”), schoolwork (“finish writing that paper before you go out”) and fashion (“don’t get too fapitzed; it’s just a picnic”) to homesick college students. Ellen wishes she had been old enough at the time, to be sitting at the soda fountain.
Looking for a way to tie this column together, we realized that we’ve been working together long enough, that we feel we know each other’s husbands, kids and families really well. Now we just have to have a sleepover party so all these ancestors can mingle and get to know each other, too.
P.S. If you’re searching for a great Sukkot movie (trust the Word Mavens to know such a thing!), the Israeli film Ushpizin (2004 and available on video) tells the story of an infertile Orthodox couple in the Old City of Jerusalem who are out of money and almost out of hope as they prepare for the holiday. The couple faces challenges when unwanted “ushpizin” make themselves at home in their sukkah for the duration of the 8-day holiday and unusual events unfold.