Culture, Justice, Religion

Shelter from the Storm:

This year, the Milwaukee chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace planned a Sukkot tea party- picnic in a city park. With festivities staged in rickety shelters open to the sky, Sukkot seemed to us like an ideal time to honor the situation of the almost 70 million refugees worldwide who sleep every night in these kinds of dwellings.  In a state that has refused to accept any refugees from an escalating Syrian civil war, we hoped to use the holiday to jumpstart our solidarity with these displaced people.
It turned out it was way beyond our budget to reserve the picnic shelter at the park we chose. But that was fine: we figured we would show up early and claim space there. Late October in Wisconsin is not a high-volume time for city parks.
We planned the event for the Saturday toward the end of Sukkot. All that week it was cool and rainy; I imagined three or four people, huddled under the shelter we would surely have all to ourselves.  But the appointed day was beautiful: late October chiaroscuro, lengthening shadows highlighting sun on the orange and yellow leaves.
When we arrived at the picnic shelter, a small party was already in progress. Three men with beer cans were seated at one of the tables, their large dog sprawling across another, secured by a thick chain. The men wore layers of sweatshirts and army jackets. Their skin had the slightly leathery look of people who frequently sleep outside.  A grill perched precariously on top of one of the metal park trashcans gave off the rich smell of roasting meat.
It was a big shelter. Exchanging nods with the party already there, we unpacked our spread on some tables nearby.
We had shared the invitation to this event widely and were rewarded with a good showing of people, some of whom were new to our chapter.  My friend Lila RSVP-ed to the event announcement to ask if we would like “a sukkot song”; she came with her ukulele.
An older man who I didn’t know arrived at the party and thanked us for the invitation. He introduced himself, and was soon chatting with folks at both parties.  He approached the table where we were spreading the food and asked me if we could put some water in a cup for the dog.  “Those are the refugees, there,” he said, nodding in the direction of the other tables.  We filled a cup with water, and sent him back with a container of hummus and some chips for the men.
We gathered together, said a brief communal prayer and talked about working together on refugee solidarity.  Then Lila sang Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” because, she said, she had discovered that the song has often been associated with Sukkot. And listening to her, that made a lot of sense:
I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
When she finished the song, we all applauded, the men at the table nearby particularly vigorously. “Honey,” one of them asked her.  “Could you play some Louis Armstrong? I love to hear Louis Armstrong.”
She sat down at their table. Everyone talked and ate and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon.  After a while, Lila stood up with her ukulele and sang Louis Armstrong’s classic, “What a Wonderful World”:
The colors of the rainbow,
So pretty in the sky.
Are also on the faces,
Of people going by,
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you”.
We all applauded together, the ‘real refugees’ and the Saturday picnickers with warm homes we could return to later.  One of the men smiled, a tear in his eye. “That was beautiful, honey,” he said.
The kind of love Louis Armstrong writes about in that song is hard to express, even to friends, let alone to strangers.  Refugees are everywhere, both closer to us and farther away than we think.  Maybe it’s a little bit easier to feel their presence in a shelter open to the sky, even if it’s just for a moment.

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