Of tents and old men staring at branches

What Christmas is to many people in the world, Sukkot is to some12 million Jews living scattered around the world. Even the non-religious Jews set up their “Christmas tree”, er, Sukkah.

A Sukkah is a temporary building. The roof has to allow starlight to shine through. Jews should “live” in the hut for eight days during Sukkot. But as with many Jewish laws and mitvot, they found a work around. So eating in the Sukkah will suffice.

Our neighbors asked us permission to build their sukkah on our balcony, for they did not have space to set one up themselves. It is customary to not start building your sukkah before Yom Kippur is over, but boy oh boy was the wait long for many neighbors. As for the kids.

Many huts already arose long before Yom Kippur. As Sara explained to me, this was to claim a lot. And thus allowed. Our kids, having been invited to help set up the neighbor’s sukkah, were dragging wood and lumber, palm leaves and basically anything they could find home. You never now what one might need to build a sukkah.

The day came and the sukkah was build, three days before Sukkot. When we couldn’t find a kid, it was sure to be found in the newly built extra room on our balcony. The whole neighborhood turned into a refugee camp, or so it seemed.

Cars had to park elsewhere because all the parking lots were taken. By Sukkah tents and huts. The outside of the Sukkah mostly made of wooden panels and sometimes of white tent fiber. Inside is where people went all out: guirlands and stars, fake fruits and plastic vines. Beautifully set tables with, of course, the always present single use plastic table ware.

The best part was when we visited Mea Shearim to buy some flowers for our Sukkah. All throughout the neighborhood, old men in their orthodox attire were closely inspecting the four species.

Imagine your great grandfather trying to decipher the instructions on his medication, without his glasses on. I have never seen people inspect a branch so closely, or observe a lemon with such care. Nor have I seen people drag fresh dates on a piece of palm through the streets for that matter.

And above it all, there were all the balconies above our heads, every single one turned in to a Sukkah. It made me think of an ad in the Parisian subway for storage room: Une pièce en plus (an extra room).

We fell oddly misplaced and wonderfully part of it. My scarfless hair, Kippahless boys and yet our many children. Our modest but yet far too colorful clothes. It is my favorite state of mind: being part of something yet being a bystander.

In a way, this must be how my ultra orthodox friends feel every day when they step outside their bubble. So much part of this country, and yet, always the odd bystanders, too. Living without smartphones and internet, without television and technology. Dressed differently and yet so alike.

At least all Jews like to build their Sukkah. Observant or not. And frankly: we would love to have the same tradition.

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