On Sukkot, Reclaiming Jewish Diasporic Identity

This week was Sukkot, a week-long Jewish holiday that we mark, among other things, by building a Sukkah, or temporary structure with a thatched-roof, where it’s customary to share communal meals and, for some, to lay out beneath the stars.

Also called “The Feast of Ingathering” and “The Feast of Tabernacles,” Sukkot evokes both the temporary dwellings of farmers during the harvest and the dwellings constructed by the Jewish people in the Torah during the forty years of exile in the desert.  I grew up loving Sukkot for the same reason a lot of children do– following the weighty, long days in Shul during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot felt like a week-long extravaganza of making paper chains, shaking the lulav and etrog, and sharing meals with my Jewish community. 

This year, I delighted in the Sukkot traditions as always, but also found myself felt strange and sad. As I often do on Shabbat, several times during the holiday I found myself choosing between Jewish communities: my campus Hillel, the local Conservative congregation where I teach Hebrew School,  and the small group of lefty, anti-racist Jews who I make Shabbat with and see at actions. In each of these Jewish spaces, I’m able to experience most fully some aspect of my Jewish identity. The prayers at Beth El remind me of my old shul back in Rockville, and I love being in a multi-generational space. Our Hillel is the hub of Jewish life at Duke, the place where I eat and pray and spend time with other students trying to figure out how to carry on our traditions.  And the tiny, leftist Havurah is the only Jewish community I’ve found that doesn’t tolerate, but actively honors my queerness, my complicated relationship with Israel/Palestine,  my ambivalence about the patriarchal structures of the Judaism of my youth. All of them feel deeply important; none of them feel quite like home.

I have these two recurring visions: in the first, I’m an old woman, at least 90, living in a little yellow house in Durham. I’ve breathed the North Carolina air so long that even as my eyesight fades, I can feel it in my kneecaps when a stranger comes to town, and my house is filled with bookshelves and pressed flowers and small vials of oil. In the other: I am late to my bus, or my train, and I’m running to catch it. No backpack, no anything but my printed ticket. I am going and going, and my legs never get sore and I never stop.

So much of Judaism, for me, is yearning for a sense of home. I know this deep in my body, the way children know things their parents refuse to say aloud. We carry the tent of meeting on our backs, and we assemble the beams and fabrics and altar again and again.

We build a hut with three walls and a thatched roof, and we break bread underneath the stars. We become masters of making a home wherever our feet carry us.

The colonial project says: Get rid of your yearning! Get out of diaspora! Zionism says: A land without people for a people without a land.  

I say: fill your Sukkah with a paper chain that’s blue and green and red and orange. Pray and break bread wherever you are, even when you feel out of place. Perhaps, most of all, when you feel out of place. I say: do not be ashamed of your homesickness: for a world without white supremacy and nationalism, for the language that feels clumsy on your tongue, for a time when we beat our swords into the plowshares/and learn war no more.

Here’s to Sukkot, to queer Jewish futurity, and to living that prayer for justice on the streets. Chag Sameach, family.

3 thoughts on “On Sukkot, Reclaiming Jewish Diasporic Identity

  • Reply David Reed March 26, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    from 12th century France (where Rashi’s grandchildren lived, wrote and taught), High of St Victor wrote

    One who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; one to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but a perfected person is one to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.

    Edmond Jabes, whose family fled Alexandria Egypt after 1956, where they had lived for centuries, lived in Paris and wrote poems under the heading

    Je batis ma demeure …I build my dwelling place…

    Diaspora is the human condition…and the Jewish condition…

    every evening we pray ‘poreis sukkat shlomecha’ …spread your sukkah of peace…not a bayit, not a beit mikdash, not a fence, not even a solid wall…a sukkah of peace. Peace is always delicate, always threatened. Never solid, stuck on a foundation it can be moved and reestablished where those who know its value seek it out.

  • Reply Lara March 28, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    Wow, David, thank you for sharing these thoughtful meditations on homeland… and what wonderful quotes. Do you write a blog yourself? I’d love to check it out if you do!

  • Reply Tenisha Coon September 21, 2018 at 7:31 am

    I got what you mean ,saved to bookmarks, very nice website .

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