Sunday, September 26, 2010

Figuring it Out

The thing about being me, is that I have very few of the major chagim as an "observant" Jew under my belt. Every time the High Holidays or Pesach or some other major Jewish holiday rolls around, I freak out. I almost ignore the impending bigness in order to not freak out. I get nervous because I don't even have as many "sort of" observant holidays in my past as many secular Jews do. I stopped eating pork and shellfish probably seven years ago, before I found a (Reform) rabbi or a (Reform) shul, but I didn't take on observing the chagim seriously until probably three years ago. I might have fasted on Yom Kippur, but not seriously. I might have considered the idea of Pesach and stopped eating bread, but the rest? Nah. And Sukkot? Well, I probably have the least experience with this multi-faceted time of year.

Last year, I was in the community in Connecticut, I was sukkah hopping, I was running out in the rain with challah and sparlic (parsley + garlic + olive oil) in tow, just for a b'racha. The funny thing is, I didn't really understand last year that as a woman, I'm not bound to the mitzvah of sukkah, but getting soaked for the sake of a bracha was worth it. Simchat Torah last year was my first real one, in which I watched people dance with the Torah and rejoice in Judaism. It was a lively, unforgettable experience.

But still, this year, I was unprepared. I've never had these holidays to myself, in my own home, with my own rules and my own plans. Overwhelmed, is how I felt.

The community put up a communal sukkah, and most of the couples in the apartments headed family-bound. Overall I'd say there were probably about six or seven couples around, and enough men to make a minyan. I made lunch plans for Thursday and Friday with some awesome friends who were hanging around, and I began to panic: What are the rules for the communal sukkah? How big is it? Are there chairs? Tables? Do we sign up? Do we have to wait for a place to sit? Are there lights? How do we wash outside? And the list goes on and on ... I panicked. Over meals in a hut.

Luckily, everything came together fine, despite Mother Nature's wrath the moment the chag started. Yes, a storm of the likes of that one that smacked Brooklyn (although, in truth, not as bad) hit us out of nowhere. Luckily, Tuvia and I had decided to not eat in the sukkah because my allergies were killer. We saved ourselves half the roof caving in and the extreme and fast downpour. The next day we hit up the sukkah and saw the damage, which was significant, but half the sukkah was in working order. We had several more meals there, until Saturday around lunchtime when the winds picked up and, while sitting in the sukkah, I made the executive decision to exit the sukkah as the walls were shaky. Just as I started to pack up, more of the ceiling came crashing down, along with a couple two-by-fours.

But the experience? Outstanding. Unique. Special.

Sitting in a sort-of functional sukkah, we joined a large group of families that ate most of their meals together, an older couple with a challah cover that seemed ages-old, a guy who came for kiddush and motzi ("how lucky women are!") and another awesome couple with the most amazing second-night idea: cheese, crackers, and salad (no worry about preparing here, folks). We had our separate food, our separate dishes and plates and cups, but we all ate together, swatting mosquitoes (it was far too hot) and laughing at the same jokes. We were eavesdropping on one another, but conversing with one another. We were all together, separately. It was a powerful, communal experience. Chag sameachs abounded and offers of shared food followed. We were a tiny drop of the worldwide Jewish experience, sitting in huts, eating our food, laughing, and praying.

In the end, the tiny things didn't matter, and just being there did.

I suppose it will be years and years before I get adjusted to knowing how to do the chagim. Every year will come with anxieties and pressures, and the moment I have children I'm sure I'll freak out all over again over food and time and choreography. But the moment the candles are lit, everything stops, and it is that that matters most, for which I am most thankful. For which being Jewish comes fully to a head.