A sukkah and a song

Drew admires the roof of our sukkah.


"Want to sing the angel song, mommy?"

Drew and I are sitting in our sukkah under the wet cornstalks and the little lights. It is evening; the skies are threatening, but it's not actively raining -- at least not yet.

I sing him Shlomo Carlebach's setting of the song about the four angels who watch over us at night. It's part of our bedtime routine. As I mention each angel, I wave my fingers at him: from the right, from the left, from in front, from behind. He giggles.

When I'm done, I ask if he wants to sing something, and he agrees. He sings me the alphabet song, then asks me to sing it, too. We sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

By this time the light mist in the air has intensified into a drizzle. Even in our raincoats and rain boots, we're getting more than a little bit damp. So we head inside, I unplug the sukkah lights, we watch some cartoons.

A little while later, Drew in his pyjamas, he brings his raincoat and Thomas And Friends rainboots over to me. "Want to go in the sukkah, mommy?" I am completely charmed, but I have to inform him that it's really raining now, and besides, he's in PJs, it's almost time for bed.

In the gliding rocker, when I sing him the angel song before bed, I think of the cornstalks and lights of our sukkah, and it makes me smile.

 

Sukkah roof by evening.


VR Podcast 5: Sukkot

VRPodcastLogo

VR Podcast Episode 5: Sukkot

Happy Sukkot!

In this episode of the VR Podcast -- live from our sukkah in our backyard -- I talk about the festival of Sukkot, interpretations of the sukkah, impermanence, integrating blessings, the Four Species, and more.

 


VRPodcast5

23:08

To listen online or download:  VR Podcast 5 - Sukkot.mp3

23 minutes, 8 seconds / 22.2 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.



 


חג שמח / Happy Sukkot!

sukkah under cloudy sky

Our sukkah, 5773.

There are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. One for each letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name whose pronunciation is lost to us (or is perhaps, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested, our very breathing, in and out, each inhalation and exhalation together forming a prayer.) One for each of the Four Worlds.

Four days to process whatever emotional and spiritual learning Yom Kippur brought us. To install on our hearts the new name of God we downloaded during that long day of fasting and prayer. Four days to recover from the rollercoaster of the Days of Awe. To make ourselves into channels for the blessing with which we hope to irrigate the world during the festival to come.

And then, at sundown after the fourth day, we enter Sukkot. Chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. Zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. A week of dwelling consciously in impermanence, beneath the sheltering divine presence and the shelter of the ever-changing sky. A week of dining al fresco, welcoming our spiritual ancestors and our friends to join us.

During Sukkot, the immanent divine Presence dwells with us in our temporary backyard houses. God moves in with us, this week, and we move in with God. We shake the Four Species in all directions, beckoning blessing.

Even though autumn in New England can be cold and rainy, there's something glorious about being outside in the fall. I love this chance to encounter God's presence in the great outdoors before winter's cold drives me mostly inside.

And I love all the various interpretations of the holiday: that our sukkot represent harvest huts, that they represent the tents in which we dwelled when we left Egypt (or the clouds of divine glory which enveloped us on that journey), even that they're an annual return to the divine womb. Sukkot are liminal spaces, at once "inside" and "outside."

There's nothing else quite like this week. Chag sameach / happy Sukkot to all! Whatever form your festival observance takes, I hope it brings you joy.


How to build a sukkah

On the morning after Yom Kippur, call the local deli/nursery/farmer's market. Ask if they have ornamental corn stalks for sale. Make a gleeful sound when the answer is yes. Drive over and buy four bunches.

Explain to the girl in the green t-shirt that there's a Jewish harvest festival where we spend a week sitting -- or living, or eating, or meditating -- outdoors, in flimsy houses with roofs made of organic material. Wonder what she's thinking.

Try to stuff the corn stalks into your car. Try a different way. Squint at the hatchback.

Remove them and sheepishly ask if you can buy some twine. Stand around feeling useless while the young man in the green t-shirt whips out his Leatherman, flicks it open, and binds the cornstalks to the roof of the car.

Go to Target. Consider, but discard, the glitter-covered pumpkin ornaments. Choose three metallic autumn-colored pumpkins instead.

Notice that the Christmas lights are on sale, already. Find yourself, for once, delighted that the retail Christmas season apparently begins in September. Buy two bins of little white lights, and one of purple-and-orange lights on impulse.

Pick up two autumn-leaf-themed plastic placemats. Print Sukkot blessings and affix them to the placemats with clear packing tape. Punch holes in the edges and attach some string. Admire your handiwork and wish it were Sukkot already.

Wait for your husband to come home and assemble the big wooden sukkah frame he built last year.

Spend four days trying to resist obsessively checking the weather forecast to see whether you'll be able to spend any of the week in the sukkah.

Wake in the night to the sound of pouring rain. Burrow deeper into your comforter.

When Sunday afternoon rolls around, listen to the whine of the drill driving screws into waterlogged wood.

Once the frame is standing, shrug into a raincoat and head outside. Wrap the walls in old canvas. Drag wet cornstalks across the lawn and heave them one by one onto the roof, the least aerodynamic javelins ever.

Twine garlands and strings of lights. Take off your eyeglasses because they're fogged-up and water-spattered.

When the last ornament is hung, wipe your brow and notice that the rain has stopped falling. There's even a patch of blue visible through the holes in the roof.


A Sukkot prayer for the Bedouin at Rabbis for Human Rights

Hope all of y'all had a wonderful Yom Kippur!

Earlier this summer the folks at Rabbis for Human Rights North America asked if I would write a Sukkot prayer which touches on the situation of the Israeli Bedouin. I was honored to be asked, and took on the task with some trepidation; I hope the result is meaningful.

Here's how my prayer begins:

 

Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe --
Shekhinah, Whose wings shelter creation --

Once our people wandered the desert sands.
Now we merely vacation in rootlessness

While our Bedouin neighbors perch
Without permission, their goats forbidden to graze.

Time after time the bulldozers tear down homes
And playgrounds, uprooting spindly olive trees

To make room for someone else's future forest,
As though saplings mattered more than children...

 

You can find the whole prayer on the RHR-NA website, in the Sukkot section -- A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin -- or in the Prayers section (Prayers | A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin) where the prayer appears alongside an image of, as it happens, me in prayer during the last Rabbis for Human Rights conference I was blessed to attend.

Sukkot begins on Sunday at sundown. May this prayer help us to remain mindful of the Bedouin and their situation even as we celebrate Sukkot, the season of our rejoicing. Stay tuned -- I'll share more Bedouin resources from RHR once they're online.

 


Etrogcello for Tu BiShvat

Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.

And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:

Etrog, sliced open.

To this:

Before decanting.

I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.

But this etrogcello comes close.

A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.

The 2012 vintage.

We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.

But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.

Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!


Three glimpses of Sukkot 5772

Sukkot has been -- as expected -- fairly rainy. But there have still been some beautiful Sukkot moments this year. I'm not sure these snapshots are worth a thousand words apiece, but here are some windows into our Sukkot this year:

 

closeup of the roof of our sukkah

Schach, closeup.


Drew, in the sukkah

Drew sits in the sukkah.


sukkah by night

Sukkah by night.

Of course, Drew doesn't sit in the sukkah for long. (He doesn't sit anywhere for long! His first sentence was "We go?" and he uses it often.) But it still gives me a thrill to see my son exploring our sukkah, and the one night when the rain let up and we managed to invite friends over to sit in the sukkah and sip wine and cider was a joy.


Computers, habits, houses, the moon

There's something a little bit funny about having a computer crash at the start of Sukkot. Sukkot is a festival of impermanence, when we're meant to leave our houses and dwell for a week in fragile huts with roofs through which one can see the stars as they emerge over the week of the moon's waning. And what should happen to me on the first day of Sukkot but the total and unexpected death of my hard drive, forcing me to relinquish the structures of data and habit in which I ordinarily dwell.

Nothing should turn out to be permanently lost; the friendly folks at the Apple store in Albany helped me retrieve the data which was new to my machine since I'd last backed it up, and I hope to have a new computer by the end of this week. But in the meanwhile I'm in a kind of digital limbo, using borrowed technology, constantly bumping up against the realization that some vital piece of data or some unremembered account password is not at my fingertips.

In Tarot, the death card is usually understood as a metaphor for transformation and change. The death of the old brings the birth of the new. Here we are at harvest-time, bringing in the riches of the growing season which has now ended. The spectacular autumn colors which grace our hills at this time of year are already fading, leaves knocked down by our frequent recent rains. We're heading toward the dormant season (in this hemisphere), toward bare trees and cold air. But that period of dormancy is always the prelude to the next period of fertility and growth.

I'm trying to take this amusingly-timed computer demise as an opportunity to step outside my usual ways. What do I really need to bring with me at week's end when I move in to the new "house" of metal and bits? Which of the blogs I habitually read bring richness, delight, new ideas to my life, and which might be cut from my daily routine because they tend to make me angry or sad?

My eldest brother, some years ago, taught me the sentiment contained in Mizuta Masahide's gorgeous haiku as "my barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon." (You can find two translations of the haiku on the poet's wikipedia page to which I just linked.) The collapse of a computer is a kind of barn-burning -- or it can be, at least for those of us whose lives (professional, personal, creative, communal) are so intricately interwoven with the technology we use. Having lost the machine, what moon might I be newly-able to view?

It's the perfect question for Sukkot. Sukkot calls us to step out of our houses, out of our habits, out of our illusions of permanence and stability. To spend one week connecting with others and rejoicing in the outdoors, in the harvest, in the world around us. Maybe by taking a week away from our barns, as it were, we can learn to see the moon without needing a burning-down in order to remind us of just how blessed we always are.


Preparing for Sukkot 5772

Cornstalks on the roof of my car.

In years past, we've used our ger -- the small round Mongolian-style house which we and our friends assemble as extra guest space for our annual New Year's gathering -- as the framework for our sukkah. It was lovely: roundish (shaped like a cursive letter samech, if one squinted a little) with a beautiful spoked roof. (You can see photos of several years worth of our sukkot in this flickr photoset, if you're so inclined.) But this past winter, the heavy snows which caused our deck to partially collapse also broke the roof-beams of the ger beyond repair. I assumed that I wouldn't have a sukkah at home this year. I figured I would daven and hang out in the synagogue sukkah instead.

But because Ethan is awesome, he spent Sunday building a gorgeous new sukkah structure, large enough to house the glass-topped table which during the summer season lives on our deck. Drew and I picked up some schach (branches to serve as the makeshift roof) at a farmstand in town, and I drove home slowly with them atop my car. (See above.) Here's what Ethan built, topped with the cornstalks we fetched in town and festooned with autumnal garlands:

This year's sukkah.

I can't wait to spend time in it. (I am resolutely ignoring the weather forecasts which call for rain starting just in time for the festival to begin. It's a week-long festival; surely it won't rain the whole time?) (Well, I live in hope.)

Sukkot has resonated differently for me at different points in my life. After my strokes, I marveled at how the fragility of the sukkah mirrored the way I felt in my own body. When I was pregnant, the impermanence of the sukkah felt like a metaphor for the pregnancy approaching its close, and all the world felt like a flimsy sukkah when I anticipated Drew's birth. I don't know yet what the experience of Sukkot is going to bring me this year, but I'm grateful to have the chance to find out.

With (half-)walls.

There's something very powerful for me about entering into this festival only four short days after the end of the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe.) Our holiday season doesn't end with the grandeur of Rosh Hashanah or the soul-searching of Yom Kippur. Both of these are steps along the way to Sukkot, the festival of hospitality and harvest.

Sukkot reminds us that our bodies, our houses, the structures of our lives both literal and metaphorical are impermanent, more fragile than we tend to think -- but it also reminds us that we can (indeed: we must) rejoice even in these most uncertain of circumstances. What a wonderful way to round out our holidays and to enter wholly into autumn (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), this season of transition and change.


For more on this theme, I recommend Reb Jeff's post Building a sukkah in hurricane territory.


Anticipating what's next

My fingers smell of etrog.

It's the day before Yom Kippur. I'm neck-deep in preparations for the holiday: I meet with my cantorial soloist to talk through the services, print a few last-minute materials, add names to the list of those for whom we pray for healing, punch holes in the guided meditation I wrote for the Avodah service (in which we remember the sacrifices of old on this day) and file it in my prayerbook binder.

And then the long narrow boxes materialize at the synagogue. Three sets of Four Species -- each containing a citron fruit, a willow branch, a myrtle branch, and a palm -- which we will wave during Sukkot. It's a wonderful reminder that, as big a deal as Yom Kippur is (both spiritually and professionally), it's not the end of anything: just another step in the continuing journey of the wheel of the year.

As I open the boxes, I feel like a little kid getting a birthday gift. Something beautiful has traveled a long way to reach me just in time. We haven't even entered into Yom Kippur yet, and I'm already remembering what comes next: the week of trying to daven and eat in the flimsy wee house which hints at the kind of booth in which my spiritual ancestors might once have dwelled while bringing in their harvest, which reminds me to cherish the beauty of what's open to the air and the rain.

We're not there yet. Right now it's time to intensify and complete my preparations for Yom Kippur. Tomorrow it will be time to dive headlong into the immersive experience of Yom Kippur, of Shabbat, of the day when tradition tells us God is most near to us, when the channels between us and God are clearest and most open. After Yom Kippur comes Sunday: a day for football, for building our sukkot, for winding down. But it's on the way.

As I've been writing this post, the scent of etrog has faded. I miss it already. I might have to walk across the room, open up one of the little padded etrog boxes, and breathe it in one more time.


Etrogcello, part 2

Back in the autumn, I posted about making etrogcello, a variation on the sweet lemon-flavored liqeur limoncello. Instead of being made with lemons, this is made with etrogim, the nubbled citrons of which we make ritual use during Sukkot. I based my attempt mostly on the recipe at When life gives you lemons: peeled the etrogim, set the peels to soak in a large sterile jar filled with vodka, put it in the dark, and waited.

We tasted a tiny bit of it back around the winter solstice (after it had been sitting there for about two and a half months), sweetening our individual nips with sugar or with Splenda. It was pretty awesome. It's bright and citrusy and smells distinctively like etrog, which is an amazing scent and not quite like anything else I know. Ethan liked it well enough that he asked whether we could finish the etrogcello with a diabetic-friendly symple syrup. So I did some digging to see if that would work.

On this limoncello recipe, one of the commentors, blgpts, offered insights on how to make limoncello using Splenda instead of sugar. (I also spent some time reading How to make limoncello, an astonishingly comprehensive post about the making of this liqueur. I'd like to note, for the record, that I was not nearly as obsessive about filtering as it sounds like that guy tends to be...) From all accounts, Splenda adapts beautifully to simple syrups. So I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the quart jar... and then returned it to the darkness of the pantry, to remain dormant for a few weeks more.

After I got home from my ordination, I decanted what was in the jar:

The fruits of my etrogcello labors.

The little bottles are meant as gifts (at least one is going to Jeff, who graciously gave me his leftover etrogim to work with) and the big one is for us. I'm planning to save it for Tu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees." We'll toast that new year with a nip of our own homemade etrog liqueur -- a reminder of Sukkot and autumn and our sukkah and the crunch of leaves underfoot, a reminder to look back to last fall and also forward to next fall even as we inhabit this moment in deepest midwinter.

I love (re)connecting Judaism with its seasonal roots. At the full moon of the month of Shvat, Jewish tradition teaches us, the sap begins to rise and trees begin to nourish themselves toward the growing season that's coming. Tasting the fruit of actual trees helps me to remember that this isn't just an intellectual and spiritual teaching. I love all the mystical teachings about the roots of the Tree of Life, but this isn't only a celebration of those things -- it's a celebration of real live trees and their continued existence, too.

Torah is famously compared with a tree ("It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it"), but at this moment in the year I like to think about the ways in which trees are like Torah: they are beautiful, they nurture us with their shade and their sustenance, and even though they change in appearance as the year unfolds there's something constant and solid about them, something we can hold on to.

And Torah is yummy. Just like our etrogcello. L'chaim!


Etrogcello!

The etrog a fascinating fruit. (Don't believe me? Try reading The Trail of the Elusive Etrog.) Nothing else smells quite like an etrog (or, to use its English name, citron); every year when mine comes in the mail and I lift it out of its packaging, I inhale and suddenly I'm hyperlinked with every Sukkot of my life. The etrog is described in Torah as pri etz hadar, the "fruit of a goodly tree." The etrog has all kinds of symbolism: it represents the heart, it represents the womb, it represents one of the letters of God's name, it represents a person who is learned and does good deeds... One way or another, it seems a shame just to throw it away when the holiday is done, and I enoy canning and preserving, so I'm always on the lookout for things I can do with my etrog after the festival ends.

In years past I've tried making all sorts of etrog jams and marmalades, all of which have been quite tasty. I always try to eat some of the previous autmn's etrog when Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, rolls around in deep midwinter. But it turns out I just don't eat that much bitter marmalade in a year, and we've still got some etrog marmalade from last year kicking around. What to do with my etrog and the other couple of etrogim I was handed at the end of the festival this year?

Make etrogcello, of course!

A jar of future etrogcello.

I'm a big limoncello fan. I first developed a taste for it while visiting Italy a couple of years ago, and in more recent years have sipped it in Buenos Aires and also here at home -- it's one of my favorite summertime aperitifs. So this year I decided to try making a limoncello variant featuring our etrogim. (Before you ask, yes, I know that etrogim are often grown with pesticides. I scrubbed them as well as I could, and I don't plan to overindulge, so hopefully I won't ingest too much that's not good for me.)

I based my recipe on several I read online, most especially this one from Patty Mitchell. Ethan and I often make flavored vodkas (easy: fill an infuser with fresh fruit, cover with vodka, let the fruit steep and then decant the liquid) and it turns out that the first step of making limoncello (or etrogcello) is exactly the same... though raspberries or strawberries only need to steep for a few days; th citron peel is supposed to stay under vodka for at least a month or two.

I sterilized a two-quart jar, carved the peel off of my etrogim and collected the golden shavings in the bottom of the jar, and then filled it most of the way with vodka. It will sit in the dark for a couple of months; I'll try to swirl it a bit every now and then to stir up the flavors. Sometime in deep midwinter I'll make a simple sugar syrup, mix it with the fruited vodka and strain off the fruit, and bottle the results for sipping. We'll see whether or not it's any good! (And I took one of the peeled fruits and studded it with cloves to serve as besamim, spices, for havdalah. Mmm, citron-and-clove.) One way or another, it feels satisfying to have taken steps to preserve my etrogim again. Sukkot is gone, but won't be forgotten...


A mother poem which is also a Sukkot poem

The permeable world

 

THE PERMEABLE WORLD

 

All the world is a room made of windows
with different views through every pane

sit with me, knock two bowls together
hold an etrog carefully in both hands

watch me gather palm, myrtle and willow
and turn in four directions, hoping for gifts

from the winds that quake the aspen,
from the earth, from the spiraling fire

last Sukkot you were snug inside
but now you've joined the permeable world

when the rains come the roof leaks
but you're safe in my arms

and at night we're surrounded by angels
twinkling on all sides, escorting us through


This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to get out of our houses. As it happens, this week is the Jewish festival of Sukkot, when we're commanded to, well, get out of our houses! We build little temporary huts in our backyards and inhabit those instead. (If you're coming to this blog via Big Tent Poetry, and/or if Sukkot is unfamiliar to you, you're welcome to check out my Sukkot posts from the last several years.)

Anyway, this week's mother poem is my response to the Big Tent Poetry prompt and to the experience of introducing Drew to our sukkah.

Drew, sitting in our sukkah.You can see more of our sukkah here, and more of Drew here.

Part of what was fun about writing this poem was trying to figure out how to make the images work on two levels at once. For instance, the reference to angels at the end of the poem comes out of the twinkling lights strung around the sukkah's roof and also out of the the angel song I sing to Drew most nights before bed. And the line about spiraling fire is meant to suggest both the maple leaves falling from the trees overhead, and my friend Daniel spinning LED poi (which I've now learned is also called glowstringing) outside the sukkah on Sunday night. Of course, Drew missed that; it was well after his bedtime. But it's one of my sweet Sukkot memories from this year anyway.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this prompt.

[permeableworld.mp3]

 

Edited to add: this poem is now available in Waiting to Unfold, my collection of motherhood poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2013.


Sukkot harvest

Etrog slices.

One of the ways I mark the end of Sukkot is by preserving etrogim. They're such precious and beautiful fruits (especially their fragrance -- the scent is intense and unmistakeable) that throwing them away seems ridiculous. Better to make something of them; better still to make something which will allow me to savor another festival more fully. So the last few years I've preserved our etrogim to eat at Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees which comes on the Gregorian calendar sometime in February.

As always, at this time of year the hills where we live have shifted into their short-lived but spectacular orange and yellow and red clothes. The icy snows of February are almost inconceivable. But I love knowing that on some cold winter day, when the hope for spring is fierce but the days of increasing light still feel far away, we'll open these jars and their contents will remind me of sitting in our sukkah this fall.

One of my favorite food/cooking resources, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, tells me:

Perhaps the first citrus fruit to reach the Middle East around 700 B.C.E. and the Mediterranean around 300 B.C.E., citrons are native to the Himalayan foothills. They gave their name to the genus, and their name came in turn from their resemblance to the cone of a Mediterranean evergreen cedar (Greek kedros.) The several varieties have little juice, but an intensely aromatic rind that can perfume a room -- citrons are used in both Asian and Jewish religious ceremonies -- and that has long been candied.

McGee says that in China's Sichuan province, the rind is made into a hot pickle. (Anybody have a recipe for that? It sounds amazing.) Experimenting with the genre is tough; last year's attempted spicy etrog pickle wasn't really a success. (Now that I've preserved lemons -- which I did during the month of Elul, wanting to serve a dish which required them on erev Rosh Hashanah -- I understand why etrogim don't work in the same way: they're too much pith, too little fruit, and there just wasn't enough juice to marinate them in.) So I decided to reprise the etrog-ginger marmalade I made in 2007, with a few tweaks.

Resting overnight.

Continue reading "Sukkot harvest " »


Adonai, open my lips...

I recently encountered a beautiful teaching by the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger; I've blogged his teachings many times before.) This is one of his teachings for Hoshanna Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot) and can be found in The Language of Truth. It's about prayer.

On Hoshanna Rabbah we beat willow branches against the ground. The willow, he says, represents speech, which connects it with prayer (prayer being, after all, a form of speech.) The willow is also associated with David, the psalmist, who said "I am my prayer before You."

Prayer is all we have for reaching God. In some sense that may seem either inadequate or chutzpahdik. On the other hand, prayer is all we need for reaching God. The leaves of the willow are shaped like lips, and our lips are the gates through which our prayers pass.

At the end of Yom Kippur we make much of how "the gates are closing." We seem to need the catharsis and the drama of dipping deep into the experience of that day as though, when that day ends, our chance to reach God were over. Though the tradition also says that the gates of repentance remain open through Hoshanna Rabbah (some say, through Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot)... and really, says the Sefat Emet, the gates to God are always open as long as we use our lips to pray.

Our mouths are the gates. When they are closed -- when we perceive that God is far from us -- that's because we've closed the gates ourselves. That's the heartbreaking news: our experience of God as being distant from us is our own doing! But the good news is, opening the gates is always within our power. All we have to do is open our lips.


Joy

What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?

The festival of Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. It's a mitzvah -- a connective-commandment, a religious obligation -- to rejoice in our sukkot. This mitzvah is d'oraita (comes from the Torah itself, rather than from later rabbinic tradition): Deuteronomy 16:15 says, "you shall be altogether joyful." But what can this mean? Surely it isn't possible to legislate an inner state of being. For me, the critical distinction is between the English words "joy" and "happiness."

Happiness comes and goes. We may have a sense for what conditions are likeliest to bring it about, but I'm not sure we can entirely trust that sense. (Haven't you known people who pursued things they thought would make them happy, but discovered that what they were seeking wasn't actually enough?) And besides, the conditions aren't usually within our control. I may perceive that I'm happiest when I'm surrounded by people I love, eating great food, experiencing wonderful live music, traveling to exciting new places, immersing in an amazing experience of prayer -- but even though I'm fortunate to have a lot of those moments in my life, life isn't like that all the time. I can't count on that experience to sustain me. (For a different -- but not unrelated -- perspective on happiness, you might enjoy Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy, over at Ethan's blog.)

It seems to me that joy is something different. Joy can be cultivated. And joy can coexist with sorrow.

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Turn, turn, turn

Friday evening I got a message that the rabbi was unwell; could I lead services on Saturday morning? Of course, I said. He emailed me the creative Hallel handout he'd assembled, told me which Torah scroll in the ark is set to the reading for the first day of Sukkot, thanked me, and went to bed. That changed the shape of Friday evening a bit. I sat down with my Mishkan Tfilah Weekdays & Festivals edition to look over the festival morning service, and then took out my tikkun to learn the Torah reading, and printed out the guitar tablature for the "song of the week" that had been chosen -- Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," because the megillah associated with Sukkot is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) from which most of those lyrics are drawn. The service was a lot of fun; we had a minyan, I played guitar for a couple of the songs in Hallel, and afterwards we studied excerpts from Kohelet and talked about why this megillah might have been chosen to be paired with this festival, themes of striving and impermanence, work and harvest.

Shabbat afternoon was fogged-in and rainy -- no weather for sitting outside in the sukkah, alas. Instead, a good friend and I turned what we estimated to be the proverbial bushel and peck of apples (of many local varieties: Red Lady, Macoun, Honeycrisp, others of unidentifiable provenance) into enough applesauce to grace our Chanukah  latkes, feed my son next spring when he's starting on baby food, and still give both of our households enough applesauce to enjoy and to give away this winter. It was a profoundly satisfying way to spend the day. I enjoy the rhythm of the work. My fingers gravitate toward the Shaker apple corer/slicer and the food mill, both of which turn, turn, turn. I savor the scent of apples cooking with just a splash of water and several long dashes of cinnamon. And I love watching the jars pile up beside the canner, and hearing the popping sounds of their lids sealing this harvest goodness for the seasons to come.

Today dawned with fog but no rain, and soon the sun burned the fog away, though in the valley below us it rested like low-flying clouds all morning. Ethan's taking advantage of the sun to do some much-needed roofing repair work (it's kind of funny that during this season when we inhabit sukkot and remember the impermanence of our dwelling-places, he's quite literally facing the impermanence of ours!) but I'm not much help with that, so I went out to the sukkah instead. To my great pleasure, the rains of earlier in the weekend dampened everything but didn't knock the schach off of the roof! So I went inside and shook my lulav in all six directions, beckoning blessings. I sang some psalms quietly to myself. And then I sat down and called my folks, bringing them into the sukkah through their voices in my ear. I wonder what our son will make of our little round sukkah, of being outdoors and indoors all at once, next time the wheel of the year rolls around.


Permeable: a poem for Sukkot

PERMEABLE


Today I'll finish our sukkah
stacking old wildflowers
to hint at roof, twining tinsel
around the slats

all year we imagine
our houses are our houses
stable and comfortable
waterproof and familiar

but these seven days
remind us that permanence
is overrated, that our true home
is under the stars

change is always underway
nine short weeks remain
until you'll leave the home
you probably think is forever

and enter our world
airy and unpredictable
where we won't know what you need
even sometimes when you tell us

your first big leap of faith, kid:
into nothing you've ever known
into the fragile sukkah
we've decorated just for you


Tonight at sundown begins the festival of Sukkot, when we spend a week "dwelling" (or at least hanging out and dining) in little outdoor houses. A sukkah must be permeable to the elements; one should be able to see the full moon through the loose branches of its roof. It's a celebration of the harvest (in this hemisphere) and a chance to remind ourselves that even the solid structures we build aren't as permanent as the fact of change.

Nothing hammers home that truth for me as vividly as my swelling belly, the squirms and kicks I've grown accustomed to feeling inside me, the hand-me-down baby gear accumulating in the nursery. So this week's poem -- not a Torah poem; just a poem-poem -- draws both on the Jewish holiday/seasonal cycle, and on the cycle of this embodied year and the changes in my life which are physically underway.

To those who celebrate, I wish a chag sameach -- may your Sukkot be joyful!

(To ReadWritePoem folks: alas, once again I didn't write to this week's prompt, but if you'd like to read the other responses, you can find them here: Get Your Poem On #94.)

[permeable.mp3]


Find previous Sukkot posts here.

Continuing adventures in etrog preservation

Despite this toxic etrog warning at The Jew and the Carrot, I wanted to make something out of my etrogim again this year. They're so beautiful and fragrant that I couldn't bear to just throw them away. So nu, it's possible that our etrogim are pesticide-laden; I still couldn't resist. Besides, whatever I make was likely to be a condiment, something we'll eat in small bites. I decided it was worth the risk.

Last year I made etrog-ginger marmalade, which was tasty although flawed; it's somewhat bitter, and also denser than I really wanted. (I was afraid of winding up with fruit sauce again, so I cooked it for too long. Whoops.) In some ways my most successful etrog preservation to date was the spicy blueberry-etrog jam I made two years ago, which was delicious. But maybe because the blueberries provide the dominant color and flavor notes, it was slightly dissatisfying as a mode of etrog preservation. It felt like I was putting the fruits to good use, but the end result didn't feel like etrog.

Still, the combination of sweet and spicy made me happy, so this year I decided to try something wacky and new: a sweet and spicy etrog pickle.

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Sukkahfest 5769

Back when I was in Jerusalem this summer, I decided that I was going to give myself the gift of attending Sukkahfest at Isabella Freedman come autumn. It would be my reward for making it through the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe): after my first Yom Kippur pulpit, I would get three days of being able to relax into davening and learning and connecting with people during the festival known as zman simchateinu, the time of our joy. I've just returned from that adventure.

On the first night, there were songs and storytelling in the sukkah until late, and then I sat and listened to a man who was giving over teachings about the custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah. (The first night, it's traditional to invite Abraham; in Hasidic communities it's customary to invite the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism.) The man told a beautiful teaching from the BeShT about how the whole world is on fire -- which one could see as a sign of chaos, but the Baal Shem saw it as a sign of how everything that lives burns for God.

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