Three Diverse Jews on Why Sukkot Is Especially Meaningful This Year

“Our people built these same huts in times just as uncertain as these.”

Left to right: Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal, Carmel Ayala Tanaka, and Kenny Kahn. (Courtesy)

This Sukkot, sheltering in temporary dwellings takes on new meaning, as the pandemic has forced us all to consider the fragility of our lives. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought forward many of the themes associated with this holiday, including community, mortality, joy, and connection.

Team Be’chol Lashon asked three diverse Jews about how living in an era of uncertainty and unrest is shaping their understanding of Sukkot in 2020, or 5781.

Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal

My kids tell me that their favorite time in the sukkah is the morning. When I think about it, I realize that there is indeed something uniquely special about the awakening of the day in that modest hut. It’s something about the simultaneous vulnerability and safety that the moment and structure together provide.

It is for this reason that building a sukkah this year feels particularly meaningful. With so much uncertainty in the face of so many crises ranging from medical to social to environmental, to give just a partial list, it is easy to feel paralyzed. But then the time to build the sukkah comes along. It is an imperfect structure. Some years it gets blown down, some years it stands. Sometimes the roof falls in, other times it holds. But each and every year, build it we must, because to do so is to be part of the story of our people. Because our people built these same huts in times just as uncertain as these. Because to not build, on the most fundamental level, is not an option.

Maimonides states that one should actually recite the blessing of shehecheyanu on building the sukkah (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:9) . Even though it is fragile and whether or not it will stand is an open question, we still bless its building. And with that in mind I offer these words. This year carries with it enormous challenges but even larger is what we can all build together. Will everything we build to confront these challenges hold? No. Will some? Yes. And one way or the other, Maimonides would have us remember that the blessing is in the act of building.

Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal has worked in Jewish education for over ten years as a classroom teacher in both Orthodox and Community day schools. He is a recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for emerging Jewish educators and blogs at thrivingtorah.com.

Carmel Ayala Tanaka

From March to June, I was quarantined in a one-bedroom apartment with my parents on an abandoned ski hill in the interior of British Columbia. When I eventually returned to my home in Vancouver, I knew that after a short-lived summer, the rains would set in. I joke that Sukkot already came and went for me this year! By end of August, there was a huge rainfall – of course, on my birthday – and I set up a makeshift sukkah with umbrellas (as my choice of decoration) to extend outside life as much as possible, whilst protecting everyone from the downpour and leaving ample space to gather safely. It showed me that no matter how unstable the external elements get, those who really care for you will sit in a dripping wet sukkah to break bread with you.

Ironically, it’s sunny and dry this weekend, and so this year, Vancouverites are not tested nearly as much on their devotion to sitting outside in the cold; we just have to contend with the fire smoke. To offer some temporary grounding in a rather uncertain time, I am focusing this holiday on what is tangible to me. At this very moment, that tangibleness comes in the form of baking a Maple KaboChallah to celebrate my Jewpanese roots. (The recipe can be found on page 25 of this book.) Nothing screams more joy to me right now than a little sweetness from maple syrup, a bit of kabocha nuttiness and a bunch of Jew-ishly woven strands to create a single, delicious, intersectional loaf to share in community with family and friends!

Carmel Ayala Tanaka is a Jewish community professional in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She is the former director of Hillel BC Society at the University of Victoria and the founder of JQT Vancouver, a Jewish queer and trans group, and of Genocide Prevention BC. 

Kenny Kahn

With focus on the fragility of shelter and of joy Sukkot prompts me to examine internally and externally, my priorities have shifted and now time and attention, specifically for my loved ones has grown stronger. Alex and I were blessed with the birth of our second son, Harris, right before a list of personal and global challenges forced us to live, work, and interact differently. Our home has become a learning lab and activity center, while my workplace has become a ghost town because as a High School administrator I go to work in an empty building.

Programs are people, and the spaces we hold and occupy develop the structure and stability, with care and attention to ‘holding up’ the space from the foundation to the rooftop. For me, so much of that structure has been the in-between time connecting with those I love; with my wife and boys, making sure my mother who lives alone is straight, and checking in on my sister’s house, on mother-in-law and her husband, and sibling in-laws, because each of them are facing new challenges we’ve never prepared for.

Kenny Kahn is an assistant principal at Monte Vista High School in Danville, CA. In 2013, he received the Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He has been involved with Be’chol Lashon since its founding and was the co-director of Camp Be’chol Lashon for many years.

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