Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Eclectic Pop Culture, American, Israeli, Jewish Sukkah

Our Sukkah was highlighted a few years ago in an online feature by Judah Harris, a photographer who is prominent in the Jewish world. The experience made me realize that the Sukkah that Debbie, the kids and I have developed over the years reflects who we are and where we have been. While my photographic skills are not nearly up to Judah's level, please join me on a tour of our Sukkah, with the story that it tells...

We begin with the frame itself. Our family started its journey in Atlanta, where Debbie and I moved a week after we were married. A few years later, we moved into our first house and were excited about building our own Sukkah. As a congregational rabbi, space was going to be important, so that kids and families of the synagogue could join us. Off we went to a plumbing supply place to explain what it was we were trying to build to a very, ummm, unsophisticated Southern guy, who, because of the neighborhood the store was in, carried a very unconcealed weapon. But he was smart enough to figure out exactly what pipes and fittings we needed. And we had our 12 x 12 sukkah. Almost 30 years later, that frame has withstood wind, rain, and snow along the way, and continues to serve with distinction.

Two years ago, our old blue tarp walls went to the great sukkah in the sky. We searched for new walls, looking to capture the desert motif. The camouflage of Operation Desert Storm came to mind, and we went with a color that to our minds, would have matched the sand our ancestors marched through on the way to the Promised Land.

Also in the picture above are Israeli/Hebrew Budweiser banners that once adorned a restaurant in Israel. A few words are in order here. First, just for the record, I dislike beer. But I love pop culture, which brought me to collecting electric beer signs (which Debbie, in a moment of weakness, allowed me to hang in our den). According the Jewish tradition, one is supposed to make his/her sukkah a permanent dwelling during the holiday, and even is to bring the best utensils out to the sukkah. Since the electric beer signs are just not practical in the sukkah, we make do with the banners.

Oh, a word about how we obtained these. Debbie and I were in Israel and I dared her to ask the owner of the outdoor restaurant for them. Never one to miss a dare, she asked for them, and watched in horror as the guy brought out a butcher knife and proceeded to cut them down and hand them to us.

The Coca Cola sign in the back, with a space for writing a message also has a story. My sister-in-law, who then lived in Be'er Sheva took us to the Coca Cola bottling plant there. Not being used to having visiting tourists, they showered us with the sign and other advertising specialities. For the holiday, the message of Chag Sameach adorns the sukkah.

The dragon at the top of the sukkah is from the Chinese tradition in which a dragon often indicates good luck. In addition, good people are often compared to a dragon. Also in the Chinese tradition, red, as the color of fire, is used to ward off bad luck. Since Jews eat Chinese food, particularly on Christmas, and we shop in Chinatown to avoid retail prices, it is appropriate to include these Chinese traditions in our sukkah.

The American flag decorations actually hold a special place for us. On the Sukkot that fell a short time after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we needed to express our patriotism and our unity with all Americans everywhere. The flag decorations became part of our sukkah and will remain so.

Again, according to Jewish tradition, one is to make the sukkah his/her permanent dwelling place during Sukkot, including bringing the best of utensils out there. Being a music lover, a convert to hip-hop music and a graduate of Scratch DJ Academy, the Hot 97 FM poster that we got at a Grandmaster Flash concert is a way of expressing those interests and carrying them with us into our sukkah.

The Budweiser inflatable blimp carries the earlier theme of beer signs and collectibles out to the sukkah and complements the Israeli Budweiser beer signs. The Hebrew Sprite banners are also Israeli in origin, reinforcing our love for the land of Israel and its people. The inflatable Chiquita banana, purchased at the Brimfield Antiques Fair, is the largest of the artificial fruit that we hang in our sukkah.

The pumpkin lights are a particularly American expression of the turning of seasons that Sukkot also commemorates.

To the left in this photo is a tradition touch: a Hebrew sign that, on one side reads "Blessings to you as you enter" and on the reverse "Blessings to you as you leave". Most important, this photo highlights the disco ball that should be a part of every sukkah.

And finally, adorning the wall is a hanging from the Elvis Inn, located near Abu Ghosh on the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv highway, one of the holiest sites in Israel. The Israeli nature of this item is obvious from the typo ("Elvi's Inn"). The Inn became famous as the title of Tom Segev's book Elvis in Jerusalem, in which he explores the Americanization of Israel. So this wall hanging is a fitting reminder of the mashup of American Jewish life, with our feet firmly on American soil and dancing to its music, while our hearts are also in Israel.
What stories does your sukkah tell?