The Sukkahs in Our Midst

By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Published by: Jewish Journal

On the corner of Washington Way and Venice Boulevard, an island grants pedestrians a safe haven as they cross the expansive street. Sometime within the past few months, a structure appeared on the island. With four walls of various materials and a sheet of bamboo as the only separation between the occupant and the sky, it was the first sukkah in Venice this year.

You’ve likely seen similar structures. When we leave our quarantine bunkers and make our way through the city, it seems as if a tribe of new people multiplies as plentiful as stars in the sky.

Throughout Los Angeles, row after row of tents — under overpasses, over concrete islands, standing side by side — proliferate. In many ways, they appear like the community of Israel as described by Rashi: “When Balaam cursed the Israelites, God changed Balaam’s curse into a blessing; he was struck by the beauty of what he saw in our itinerant, refugee ancestors.” 

Today’s sukkahs and their inhabitants, however, are controversial. In a recent Facebook thread, one woman posted about a local homeless man needing help, then was accused of enabling his presence in our neighborhood. Beyond their “Not in My Backyard” attitude, homeowners have a genuine fear of this proliferating tribe. Open up any Citizen app at 10 p.m. and it’s filled with orange squares reporting incidences of “shooting,” “armed robbery” and the mysteriously ubiquitous “man wielding hammer.” Fears of COVID-19 infection have recast the presence of the homeless into a kind of leper colony, with dogwalkers crossing the street rather than walking alongside them. 

THERE IS NO SHELTER FROM THE PANDEMIC, FIRES AND CIVIL UNREST WITHIN A SUKKAH’S WALLS.

Lining our avenues for blocks at a stretch, these sukkahs seem to create new neighborhoods in our midst and transform the conversation from one of homelessness to one of homesteaders. Their inhabitants are a rising tribe, some of whom are referred to as L.A.’s homeless population, although many of them, I have learned, don’t identify as homeless. They do have homes, they assert, such as this “sukkah” on a pedestrian island in Venice. 

The sukkahs in our midst are a visible reminder of the formerly invisible homeless. Since the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) annual “Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count” in January, the number of homeless individuals has significantly risen. The tents are proliferating, and people dwell inside of them. Are they a symbol of urban blight and human depravity, or do they serve as a visible reminder of our shared humanity and the temporal nature of life? Do they inspire us to look closer or turn away?

Tents in Penmar Park, Venice

A shelter, but not a hiding place

As Sukkot approaches, these tents remind me of the omnipresence of sukkahs in Jerusalem. As I walk in Venice, I consider whether or not the rabbis would consider these tents kosher. They have at least 2 1/2 sides with walls at least 40 inches high and have coverage allowing the starlight to make its way inside and shine upon the dweller. Some are built alongside fruit trees, and one has a pomegranate bush bursting with buds. I recall the uniquely crafted sukkahs in Union Square Park in Manhattan, N.Y., in 2010 — a reimagined design of what a kosher sukkah could be. I wandered through masses of wire, stacks of tinder and globular structures and was inspired by their temporal nature and the heartbreak of their evanescence. Seeing the newfangled sukkahs of Los Angeles, I think about how much the world has changed in such a short time, and yet, the structures arouse a similar heartbreak.

As I walk past these tents, I pass a lemon tree and it reminds me that I have yet to order my lulav and etrog. This year, it’s one per customer — no sharing. During Sukkot, we wave the arba minim, the four species of plant life (willow, myrtle, palm and citron) around us, marking the celestial sphere that surrounds us. Symbols of heart, eyes, lips and spine, of taste and smell are reminders that Sukkot is an embodied practice as well as a vestige of ancient pagan rituals, appropriated to worship the God of the Israelites. Sukkot is sensual; it arouses our bodies toward life. We crawl into the sukkah each night, surrounded by a bounty of harvest, constellations, tastes, smells, touches, sounds and sights, and we sleep inside of it. The sukkah is a womb, and as we slumber and dream, we dwell inside the mystery of life itself.

Sukkot magnifies the temporal nature of life and amplifies our relationship with the rustic world around us. There is no shelter from the pandemic, fires and civil unrest within a sukkah’s walls. Nature is indifferent to our existence and the sukkah is a visible reminder of nature’s steadfast persistence and ostensible victory. Oblivious to our suffering and the fragility of human life, dwelling in a sukkah reminds us that all of us are but visitors here.

The island Sukkah

Seeing Samuel

On one particular walk in front of these sukkahs, I happened upon a man whom I shall call Samuel. (In the Book of Prophets, Samuel was the son of Hannah, who was gifted to the priest Eli. Samuel helped identify King David, and it is from King David’s progeny, in the biblical imagination, that the Messiah will appear.) This Samuel, however, sat on the open concrete, his shirt exposing his heart, drooling as he cried. Morning joggers and cyclist passed him, indifferent. No one seemed to notice him. There are so many Samuels in Venice now, calling out to us to recognize redemption. 

But something drew me to him, so I said, “Hello, friend. My name is Lori. Why are you crying?”

Standing in front of him, I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance. Samuel was raw, his skin sunburned, his mouth agape, a figure of mournful, abject sadness. He was so exposed and I thought, maybe that is why the rabbis insist on Sukkot being “mo’adim l’simcha,” a time of rejoicing. Perhaps we created this celebration to defy the existential loss of life that we constantly face. We trot out our temporary dwellings like Christmas trees, gathering trinkets and tapestries each year to mask how temporary each year is. 

Although Sukkot is a holiday “d’oreita” (from the Torah), vivid descriptions of how Sukkot was celebrated in the ancient world are discussed by the rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud. The holiday culminates an annual cycle that begins with fecundity of Pesach, climaxes with God’s revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, and erupts with the harvest of Sukkot. Sukkot is the fulfillment of God’s promise, and in ancient Jerusalem, it included the water drawing festival, Simchat Beit Hashoavah. As described in the Talmud, candelabrum lined Jerusalem’s streets, jugglers passed torches, knives and wine goblets, and acrobats flipped and bound down the stone streets. The Levites formed an orchestra and everyone took to the streets to dance. The pageantry of Simchat Beit Hashoavah evokes imagery of a Jerusalem Junkanoo or Carnivale. 

THERE ARE SO MANY SAMUELS IN VENICE NOW, CALLING OUT TO US TO RECOGNIZE REDEMPTION.

In the same moment, as I considered this commandment of joy, Samuel’s tears reminded me that Sukkot is the bloodiest of holidays. The Israelites offered hundreds of animals as sacrifices on the altar, filling the streets with the rank stench of death and foreshadowing that an arid winter could bring crop failure, famine and our ultimate demise. Sukkot is our panoply of light and darkness, abundance and scarcity, past and present, as we continue to hang in the scales of justice for an uncertain future. Sukkot displays a dizzying array of truths, and the fleeting booths we build are a mere stand-in for the bodies that house our souls. 

Samuel blinked quickly and replied, “I lost my HUD (government Housing and Urban Development) housing after I had hip surgery. After the hospital, they sent me to an old age home, and when I was discharged, they told me my HUD was given away. They dropped me off at Skid Row 35 days ago, and I made my way to Santa Monica. I walked up to Venice yesterday.” He pulled down the side of his pants and displayed a fresh surgical scar. “I tried to get one of the LAHSA workers to help me, but all of the services are saying there is nowhere to go because of the COVID.”

I asked if he had a family. He told me about his mother in West Virginia, his brother in Ohio. “Where is your father?” I asked. “My father …” he stammered, and began to cry. “My father died a year and a half ago.” “And he really loved you?” I asked. Through his cries, he gasped, “Yes.” “What was his name?” I asked. “Jamie … James. His name was James.”

In the sukkah, we call forth our ancestors, or in Aramaic, ushpizin. Their presence draws forth the reality of the world that existed before we did, and reminds us that one day, not so soon in the cosmic sense of time, we will join them. As we look up at the stars through our sukkah, the very same stars that shone upon our ancestors shine upon us. Sukkot demands that we invite in the ancestral system; like the ofrendas (offerings) from Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), we place photos of our grandparents and great-grandparents inside the sukkah, and our meals take on a heavenly presence. Samuel’s grief reflects that wherever we may tarry, our ancestors are with us always, waiting for us to feel their loss, remember their words, integrate their love and find our way. 

Samuel and I walked toward the beach. He shared that he was HIV positive, that young people were doing drugs on the streets, and he cried again. “What’s making you cry?” I asked. “They are so young,” he responded.

The final days of Sukkot create an off-ramp into our lives. Hoshanah Rabbah is like the spin cycle that dries us out; circling in procession, we whack the willows to remove the final drops of transgression within us. Shemini Atzeret offers a seasonal turning from the arid months to the wet ones. This final observance prolongs the Sukkot festival by gently pressing down on the breaks, signaling that the High Holy Days are literally stopping. Our etrog and myrtle are to be dried and turned into besamim (spices) for Havdalah, an olfactory bridge to enter the next week, and our lulav will be upcycled and woven into a basket, where we will place these spices. Then, on Simchat Torah, we will rewind our ancestral story, and the cycle will begin again.

SUKKOT DISPLAYS A DIZZYING ARRAY OF TRUTHS, AND THE FLEETING BOOTHS WE BUILD ARE A MERE STAND-IN FOR THE BODIES THAT HOUSE OUR SOULS. 

Rejoice with the stranger

Samuel and I stopped at a bench. I’d bought him a sandwich. He ate heartily, and my dog snatched some turkey from his roll. Samuel laughed and ran his hands through her coat. “She’s a good dog,” he said. 

I spotted a Parks and Recreation vehicle patrolling the boardwalk and flagged it down. I asked the driver if he knew of any shelters that could take in new residents, “None,” he replied, “and I know. I’ve been living in this truck for four months now. I’m homeless, too.” 

I stayed with Samuel for another hour. I bought him a shirt the color of techelet(turquoise), and he told me it was his favorite color — he would have chosen it, too. He asked if I could get him a Mountain Dew. We picked up a few groceries, and it was time for me to go back to the place I call home. 

As I walked away, I turned back a number of times and saw him swigging his soda with futility in my heart — an incomplete mitzvah. As I walked down Ocean Front Walk, the lawns were filled with the sukkahs of the men and women of this new Tribe. My inner Torah echoed a chant from Deuteronomy 16:14: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities.”

A cop car passed slowly on the walkway. I wondered what sukkah Samuel would sleep in that night. Maybe he would camp on the beach beneath the stars, like Jacob at Beth El, with a rock as a pillow. My vision blurred, passing tent after tent. The words from the Sukkot haftarah echoed in my mind, expressing the paradox of life’s joys and sorrows: “Utter futility,” said Koheleth, a pseudonym ascribed to King Solomon, the purported author of Ecclesiastes. “Utter futility. All is futile.” 

And yet, the futility of it all hangs in a delicate balance: A time for weeping and a time for laughing; a time for wailing and a time for dancing.

My heart turned to Samuel … I’d look for him tomorrow.