Wednesday, September 18, 2013

psychedelic shack, that's where it's at

Although I am the progeny of two Jewish parents and come from a long, Jewish lineage, my family was hardly what you would call "observant." Actually, we were hardly what you'd call "Jews." I was effectually aware of the popular Jewish holidays — Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the lesser, though way more fun, Chanukah. As far as I was concerned, these were justified days off from school. Evidently, my people's struggle under a sadistic and malevolent Pharaoh earned me a couple of skipped sessions of third grade. There were other holidays, too — Simchat Torah, Shemini Atzeret (and maybe Ramadan... maybe not). If it meant a day at home watching cartoons and Let's Make a Deal, then I was all for it. 

I rarely attended synagogue. We had a single box of matzo on Passover, but the ubiquitous loaf of bread still maintained its rightful place on our kitchen table. We exchanged Chanukah gifts on December 25. But, we knew we were Jews, and not just because it was regularly pointed out by some of our anti-Semitic neighbors.

When Mrs. Pincus stepped into my life thirty-one years ago, I was introduced to the deep-rooted customs of traditional Judaism. I'm talking two sets of dishes and silverware, no pork chops, shrimp or cheeseburgers, Friday night candle-lighting followed by Ha Motzi (blessing) over wine and challah and you didn't turn the TV on during yom tov (holidays). My new in-laws weren't fucking around, either. They followed some pretty hardcore rules! It was a bit intimidating — coming from my background. My father-in-law went to synagogue any chance he could, without even being told! And not just on holidays! And he enjoyed it! And, he knew all the proper litany and accompanying gestures without the aid of a prayer book. Holy crap (no pun intended), what was I in for? But, as the years went on, I became more accustomed to the practices, even intrigued and fascinated by the history and origins connected to the rituals. I learned far more than I ever did from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments on television.

In the fall, as the weather moved from warm to cool and Rosh Hashanah was a memory, preparations are made for the observance of Sukkot, The Feast of Tabernacles. The seven-day festival (eight, if you live outside of Israel — out amongst the English), commencing on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, celebrates (according to the Book of Exodus) "the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field." It's essentially a week-long harvest party. The celebration includes eating your meals in a sukkah or "booth". Contemporary Jews erect a temporary structure that mimics the fragile dwellings inhabited by the Jews as they traipsed across the desert as freed slaves. My in-laws annually build a sukkah on a tract of land adjacent to their house that draws visitors from across several suburban municipalities. Sitting at the top of a sloping lawn and visible from the street, their sukkah evokes comments ranging from "beautiful" and "inspiring" to "ugh, they're putting up that friggin' shed again!"

For over twenty-five years, I actively and dutifully participated in the construction of the sukkah. My father-in-law fashioned an ingenious "sukkah kit" out of stockade fence sections, metal mending plates and several dozen carriage bolts. The fence-piece walls are fastened together with the mending plates and bolts until they formed an oblong enclosure reminiscent of a frontier U.S. Cavalry fort (like the one on F Troop, but smaller). With a construction crew that has changed and evolved over the years (brothers-in-law, children, cousins and the occasional neighbor), the sukkah goes up in just under ninety minutes, sometimes slowed by a misplaced wrench, a power-drained cordless drill or in-fighting among the help. 

Once the structure is shored-up with sturdy two-by-fours, the real work begins. Mrs. Pincus works her magic and transforms that eight foot by twelve foot overgrown dog run into a breathtaking collage of fruits, leaves, flowers, lights and an array of decorations acquired over a span of many years. She does this almost single-handedly and the result is a labor of love that is truly evident and truly spectacular.

The first few years of putting up the sukkah were novel for me. I had never seen one before, let alone participated in its assembly. Once completed, and Mrs. P's astonishing metamorphosis finalized, I was proud to flaunt photos to my then-boss and co-workers. At the time, I worked at a small graphics studio that was owned and operated by a very nice woman who, had she not gone into the printing production business, would have — no doubt — become a nun. I often referred to her as "Sister Mary Graphics." One October morning in the early 1990s, I arrived at work with a stack of glossy photographs of the newly-built and decorated sukkah with which to educate and even show off. Sister Mary and an equally-Gentile co-worker examined the snapshots with wide eyes as I described the scene. Had the pictures not displayed a colorful burst of autumn foliage and produce subtly illuminated by carefully placed spotlights, you'd have thought they were viewing an autopsy.

"You eat your meals in this... this... room?," began Sister Mary, her head cocked to one side, her sensibly-short blond hair tousling about as she shook it from side to side. "And you decorate it with fruit and vegetables hanging on the walls?" Her face twisted into a dismissive scowl, as though I had just vomited on her shoes.

I countered, forcing a mock-puzzled look across my face. "You mean to tell me that every December, you drag a tree into your living room and put lights all over it and presents underneath it? Hey, at least we Jews have the sense to leave our trees out in the backyard where they belong!"

She failed to see the humor.

Over the years, my once-resolute feelings towards organized religion have waned. I no longer attend (and actually scorn) synagogue or services of any kind. I question the validity of so-called miraculous occurrences and the authenticity of Biblical parables that I can't discern from children's fairy tales. My faith and beliefs have given way to the cynicism brought on by habitual mistrust and the lack of consideration I see exhibited by my fellow human.

I will say, however, that Mrs. P has outdone herself on this year's sukkah.


  1. Great post, JPIC. I'm no follower of mainstream faith, but I've never seen how any human behaviour could be seen as proof - or disproof, either - of a greater being, hidden power or omnipresent spirit of any kind. Thanks for jostling the mind.