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Chassidic Dad Blog

Sukkot Diary

September 30, 2013 2:59 PM
As Sukkot came closer, there have been a number of these pedi-sukkahs cruising around town.
As Sukkot came closer, there have been a number of these pedi-sukkahs cruising around town.

Here are some quick snippets of what life is like around here before, during, and after Sukkot. I have not had much time to write, so you are getting it all at once . . .

It is Sunday afternoon, the day after Yom Kippur. Up and down the street you hear hammers banging, saws whining, drills whirring, and shouts, as every family puts up their sukkah, in which they will eat, drink, study, and generally hang out for the duration of the Sukkot holiday.

I first made my sukkah three years ago out of two-by-twos and plywood. The panels are easy to bolt together with just a wrench and an occasional hammer tap to help things along. They are also just seven feet tall, rather than the usual eight, since the extra foot makes them so much more unwieldy—and I don’t plan on having any NBA players over for Sukkot.

Slowly the kids from the other houses gather around.

“Can I have a turn to help with the hammer?”

“How come she got to turn the wrench first?”

“Can I be next?”

“How about me?”

I begin to wonder if I will ever get things done with so much help. Thank G‑d, the sukkah walls are up. We distribute the bundles of evergreen branches around the sukkah, cut them open and scatter them on the framework of one-by-twos spanning the top of our sukkah.

The sukkah is done. The kids are ready for the next activity, and I feel like I want to go to bed.

Something tells me this papa needs some more physical activity.

Our plywood and pine “home” for over a week.
Our plywood and pine “home” for over a week.

It is the Monday afternoon before Sukkot. I go to Y’s school to pick him up.

Me: “Y, do you know why I came to pick you up instead of Mommy?”

Y, with a gleam in his eye: “No.”

Me: “Is there something we need to buy together?”

Y: “Are we getting the lulav and etrog?”

Me: “Yessir!”

We walk into the Judaica store. We are directed down to the basement. The stairs are lined with boxes stuffed with painted brass menorahs made in Israel circa 1980 and the things you would expect to see in the basement of a Judaica shop.

The basement is surprisingly large. There are folding tables covered with boxes. Each box has an etrog—a citrus fruit with an abnormally thick peel and a delicious smell that puts the most fragrant bathroom soap to shame. There are also tables of lulavim, palm fronds.

I pick an etrog. It is an easy choice. As usual, I procrastinated, and the selection is pretty slim. The etrog is greener than I would have liked, but the shape is quite comely, and it has a clear complexion.

The lulav selection was equally slim (pun intended). Seems like they are all short and mangy this year—which is fine considering that my kids are pretty small themselves, and the smaller the lulav, the less likely they are to bash it into the sukkah wall.

There is an old rabbi sitting at one of the tables. He has been old for as long as I can remember. He is in charge.

We show him our selections, and we chat about why the lulavim are so small. I postulate that it is because the Jewish holidays are so early this year. He mumbles his acknowledgement, and gives us prepackaged hadassim and aravot (myrtles and willows) to tie to the lulav.

On erev Sukkot, the day before Sukkot, I will bind the four kinds of greenery together with special rings made of lulav leaves.

We take our goodies upstairs to pay.

Y and I exit holding hands. I have my purchases in a bag. He has a castaway lulav in his hand. We agree that he can keep it as long as it is not used to hurt anyone. He skips along, and I take extra-long strides to keep up.

It is 7 in the morning, the first day of Sukkot. I was up late the night before, sitting in the sukkah of a friend. We nibbled cake and made some l’chaims. None of us relished the vodka, and the bottle ended up about as full as it was when it came to the table. It was the first night of Sukkot, and we were enjoying the sukkah’s chilly embrace with chassidic melodies, stories and Torah thoughts. Today I am just tired—and the kids are all up, ready to go down to the sukkah for breakfast.

T and I put the finishing touches on their clothes (making sure that all the labels are in the back). Y insists on wearing his new bowtie. (Funny how those things looked so nerdy until a few years ago. Okay, they still do.) The girls are in their new dresses. R decides that hers is a “kallah (bride) dress” because it is “sooo long—like a hundred.”

We parade down to the sukkah together. I make the blessings and wave the lulav in all six directions. T is next, and then go the kids.

We have breakfast. We remind them that everything we eat in the sukkah is a mitzvah, so there is a special blessing to be said. It is their second time saying it this year, and they are already getting used to the Hebrew words.

We bring the trays up to the house, and I head off to synagogue.

We just ate supper in the sukkah. It is the first day of Chol Hamoed (the intermediate period of Sukkot), and we are raring to go dance in the street—publicly experiencing our joy. The Sukkot celebrations are known as Simchat Beit Hashoevah (the Water-Drawing Celebration), and have been observed for over two thousand years. We pile into the car and head over to a Chabad center in one of the more posh neighborhoods.

The quiet side street is full of cars. There are hundreds of children and their parents. A magician is juggling swords. I wonder if he knows that in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem the sages would juggle at the all-night Simchat Beit Hashoevah dancing.

We are pulled toward the circle of dancers. On one side is a tight-knit circle of little girls, giggling as they twirl to the music. Some of the bigger girls are trying to use fancy hora steps, but the others just bounce around in joyful abandon.

I clutch my children’s hands as I follow the nape of the man in front of me. After a few minutes, Y sits off to the side to rest. I hold R’s hand. Someone else takes my free hand. It is a man with special needs. He smiles at me, and I realize that he is someone’s child too. His hand is warm. I squeeze it gently, and we become one with the other dancers, washed away in the sea of joy.

It is Hoshana Rabbah, the very last day of Sukkot. On this day there is an ancient custom to take five willow branches and smack them on the ground five times. Exactly why we do this is beyond the scope of this blog post. Let us suffice to say that it’s related to the fact that this is the very last day of judgment for the new year.

I purchased bundles for the whole family, and placed them in a vase. They look kind of nice there. One by one, they take their bundles and whap the ground. Y is really enjoying this one. He is getting willow leaves all over the living room, but hey, who’s looking?

Today we eat a festive meal in the sukkah. It is the last time for the year that we dip our challah into honey. The kids all take more honey than we usually allow. But it’s fine. There will be no more honey until Rosh Hashanah, which is over 12 months away (this coming year is a Jewish leap year, with 13 months).

Soon will be Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the joyous crescendo of the entire season. The kids got their flags made, and they are ready to dance away. I am aching for a nap, which I will not get, so I guess I am also ready to dance away.

It’s Sunday morning again. Time to take down the sukkah. Incredibly, we had just one night of rain all Sukkot, and the sukkah is dry and ready for the garage.

Y and R help me stack the one-by-twos that covered our heads for the duration of the holiday. The pine boughs that covered the two-by-twos (yep, we like our sukkah covering thick) are brittle from sitting out in the sun.

As I stack the last bundle of wooden poles in the garage, A comes down to survey the scene. “Goodbye, sukkah,” she chirps and waves her hands. It’s a bittersweet moment.

We work quickly, and we soon have the wall panels stacked nicely in the garage. I gather the two-by-twos into bundles, and let Y and R wrap them with masking tape. They wrap with gusto, and then make themselves masking tape belts with the leftovers—never save for tomorrow what you can waste (or is it waist?) today.

Dad Goes Shopping

We get a fish head, some fruit (and tired)

September 3, 2013 2:58 PM

This Sunday, we went Rosh Hashanah shopping. Here is how it happened:

I came home from morning services with Y. (No, Y doesn’t normally go to services with me, but on Sundays the kids take turns accompanying me. This was his week. Y woke up a little after six and asked me if it was time yet. I told him that he had another hour and a half to sleep, but he wasn’t impressed. He went and got himself dressed, and sat outside on the porch.)

After we all had a good second breakfast of eggs and bagels, I bundled the three kids into our giant stroller. It has two seats and a “buggy board,” which allows a third passenger to ride from behind. R decided to take along her pink backpack. She stuck a rattle into one of the pockets. I am not sure why, but I think it was in lieu of a cell phone. With all arms and legs safely inside, we were off!

I had a short mental list of things we needed. On Rosh Hashanah, we eat symbolic foods representing our wishes for the new year. It was these symbolic items that we were after.

Our first stop was the fish store. It is pretty smelly in there, but none of the kids complained. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah we eat the head of a fish, asking G‑d that in the coming year we be “a head and not a tail.” (There are some people who actually use the head of a ram. That is not our custom, and I am fine with it. Fish heads are intense enough for me.) The fishmonger was ready. Right near the counter, there was a giant bin full of heads in plastic bags. I selected a salmon that looked nice and pink, and took it to the checkout. It was free, and we gratefully walked away with one salmon head in R’s backpack. (We triple-bagged it, because you can never be too sure about fish heads.)

Our next stop was the Judaica store next door. We didn’t actually need anything there, but the owner is a buddy of mine, and I wanted to say hello. Right in the front, they had some beautiful honey dishes on display. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we dip apples (and our challah bread) into honey, expressing our wish for a good, sweet new year—and the Judaica industry has fully capitalized on the fact that honey cannot be neatly served on a napkin, thus materializing their wish for a good, lucrative new year. R ran from dish to dish, lifting their lids, admiring the delicate little spoons and otherwise giving me reason to fear that we would be going home with a broken dish and a little less cash. She wanted to buy them all, or at least one. I reminded her that we didn’t need a honey dish, because she was making one in school. Satisfied, she joined us as we admired the shofars on display.

Right next door, there is a little fruit store. I poked my head in and asked the owner if they had any pomegranates. Rosh Hashanah is really early this year, and we did not know if they were in season yet. He told us that he had them “and all the other fruit you need for your holiday.” We came in and followed him to the shelf where he had a carton of Israeli and American pomegranates.

I’m sure he thought we would go for the Israeli ones (they were double the price). And he would generally be right; we jump at the opportunity to support our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. But produce is unique. We preferred the American ones, because there are all kinds of halachic issues related to fruit from Israel. Produce grown there must be tithed, and the fruit bore no label stating that the tithes had been properly taken.

We picked out two juicy pomegranates (just in case one of them turns out to be a lemon) to express our wishes that our merits be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate.

On our way out, we remembered that we needed a new fruit. A new fruit? No, not a fresh fruit. A fruit that is new to us, one we had not eaten since last time it was in season. Why do we need a new fruit? Actually, it is not to symbolize our wishes for a new year. The reason is more technical than that.

Rosh Hashanah is two days long. On the first night, we say the Shehecheyanu blessing, in which we thank G‑d for enabling us to celebrate this holiday. We say this same blessing over other milestones, like new clothing or a fruit that just came into season. Now, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are considered to be one elongated day. As such, some suggest that on the second day of Rosh Hashanah the holiday is no longer new, and it does not warrant a blessing. Others say that the second day is really a valid holiday on its own, and the blessing is in order. The halachah follows the second approach. Nevertheless, in order to satisfy the first opinion, we have a new fruit on the table and have in mind that blessing is over the fruit as well—just to cover all the bases. (Note: This is a very complex subject, and I just presented the Cliff’s Notes. You can read all about in in the Code of Jewish Law, chapter 600. Also note that this means that the symbolic stuff—other than challah and honey, which we eat until Hoshana Rabbah–is for the first night of the holiday, and the new fruit is for the second night.)

So, which fruits had we not eaten all season? Hard to say, since we all eat different things. Safest thing to do is to have an unusual fruit that none of us had. Our friend the fruit seller directed us to some delicious-looking Israeli star fruit. Those were not going to do, so we asked again, and he showed us some prickly-looking fruit. A nice Moroccan Jewish lady who was in the store to see if he had truffles (did you know that Moroccans eat truffles on Rosh Hashanah?) showed me how to cut it open. We took two, and were on our way home.

And with that we came home, and deposited the fruit in the fridge and the fish head in the freezer.

We will eat the fruit with gusto, and I am still gathering the courage to pick at the fish head—and I am pretty sure that I will be the only one in our family. Something about those glassy eyes just creeps me out. So, I guess I will just shut my own eyes, and eat a bit of flesh far from the fish’s. Ram head, anyone?

This is a blog about life with my wife and three children, who will, with G‑d’s help, grow up and probably be embarrassed by what I write.

As of spring 2013, Y is a thoughtful four-year-old who loves books and learning things. R is one year younger and full of energy. A is a sweet little girl who loves her red shoes. T is their ever-capable and loving mother, and I am their dad.
Menachem PosnerRabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor at Chabad.org, the world’s largest Jewish informational website. He has been writing, researching, and editing for Chabad.org since 2006, when he received his rabbinic degree from Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch. He resides in Chicago, Ill., with his family.
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