Deliberate faith and faith led unconsciously are not equally valued in Jewish tradition, said best by the parable of the little boy who couldn’t even read the Yom Kippur prayers on an eve of God’s severe judgment over his village. “I do not know which prayers to say, Lord, so here, I give you the whole book!” The boy’s sincere effort annuls Heaven’s decree above the practiced prayers of the town’s learned men. This is the point I make.
Kung Fu Jew’s SukkahThese thoughts come from putting up my Sukkah last week. Twice. I walked a couple blocks to “Sukkah Depot” in Crown Heights and surveyed the typical Lubavitch pre-holiday bustle. Sukkah kits of all varieties were selling like hot cakes. But it seemed to me that buying a kit was the easy way out — did Moses have a kit? Surely the wandering Israelites MADE kits but it sure as hell wasn’t PVC piping and water-proof tent fabric. I opted for the wood planks.
And boy did I pay like hell for my spiritual presumption. There were only six planks remaining (remember a cube has more than six edges). Each of them were different sizes. The only friend around to help me carry them six blocks was the shortest human being I know. (Thanks again, Rachel.) The screws I purchased stripped with infuriating ease. I build the roof first, not thinking that I couldn’t screw on the legs without help — which I promptly conscripted my dinner guests to do, while I finished cooking. It started falling over twice during dinner until we ultimately went inside after eating, leaving it to collapse into pieces.
The holiday is all about temporary shelter, right? And if any sukkah made me feel scarely protected, this one was it. To make a longer story short, I put it back up, by myself, with structural improvements. It looks even better than before, with additions of scavenged sheets, bailing twine, and foliage. It’s downright beautiful. And the company and food I had filling it — particularly because I kashered the whole kitchen in order to host a couple all-kosher friends — made it even more beautiful.
But the point is, I did it myself. There is definite love of God in the sweat that built that sukkah — a total original, never to be reproduced the same way again. I Yid it myself. Building from a kit just ain’t the same. The rest of my Jewish life is similar — from my approach to prayer, kashrut, and holidays.
Some years – and some lifetimes – that’s more true than others. My family has always done Jewish tradition our own way — given our limits. Our limits were often our (un)familiarity of Jewish laws, the presence or absence of kosher grocery, the type(s) of Jewish communities and families nearby, and even our willpower to figure it out when the answers weren’t apparent. As the kid of an Army soldier, we were frequently stationed around the U.S. in places were Jewish amenities were slim or absent. I fondly look back on the boxes of Pesach food shipped to us annually by our relatives in LA or driving many hours to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes it was quite frustrating.
In essence, we Yid it ourselves. And to this day, I wrestle quite extensively with Jewish communities who do Jewishly with ease, because I am led to suspect they are asleep at the wheel. I get suspicious that they take it for granted. And quite frequently I get angry at New York City in particular.
For Jews who want an immersion Jewish life such as can be found in New York City, I bear them no dislike. Hell, I’m living here for the time being. But I personally do not feel fulfilled in a Judaism that is lived accidentally, through osmosis, because that’s just what you do in a place with so many Jews. With all the sukkahs around my own neighborhood and the kits available, I still had to do it the hard way. Too much of a sense of ease rankles me, quite simply. It comes from looking around the backyard in Nebraska thinking, “NOW what are we going to build a sukkah with?” And it comes from borrowing rooms in churches and covering up the Jesus paintings and pulling the collapsible aron kodesh out of the car trunk. I swear, the Diaspora-Israel divide is fading away because the major cities aren’t really an exile. Welcome to New York City, the new Jerusalem.
I don’t anticipate sending my kids to Jewish day school partly because they would enter a world in which Judaism was the norm. (Never mind the expense if you want to have a family larger than one point five/) And Judaism is not, after all, the norm. We’re half a percent of the world. To slip into lifestyle where Judaism is not in constant friction with living a modern life is a mental mistake which I feel is stealing the beauty of discovery, of struggle, and of really earning, so to speak, one’s connection with God, peoplehood, spirituality, whatever, you name It what you will. We buy individually-wrapped, pre-sorted commodities and we’ve extended a similar ethic, unconsciously perhaps, to our faith. One size does not fit all and it does not come in a box, and there’s a shit ton of assembly required.
I am aware of how simply I am painting this. I am aware that most folks I know, perhaps especially those who grew up in day schools or observant households, are struggling in the creation of their own Jewish life. Which is why they’re such a delight to me. I am delighted by those with a bone to pick, a revolution to be had, a norm to break up — it makes living in a Jewish haven still a challenge. While I look to the “hybrid” vs. “authentic” Jewish culture wars as evidence that more Jews are “Jewing it themselves,” to mangle a catchphrase coined by Mobius, or the advent of the Havurah movement, YCT, and HC, I am not convinced it’s the mainstream.
And the mainstream be damned. I don’t need kosher butchers to eat meat “fit” (kosher, literally) for Jewish consumption, mile-high synagogue cathedrals to pray in community, or day schools to raise my kids with enough tradition to make their own halakhic decisions. At the end of my life, I’ll have earned every prayer and every story of rickety sukkot fairly. I’ll have reinvented Torah and defined realms outside of denominational practice.
I am one of the defiant Diaspora-by-pride Jews and I’ll Jew it my way — in fact, I already Yid.