I’ve thought a lot about Isaac Babel’s lovely characterization of the Jew as a man with “[s]pectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” The first part is easy: the man is an intellectual, a scholar, a thinker. He is frail, fallible; his eyes are weak and his touch, perhaps, is tender.
The second part is sexier, and more open to interpretation. What does it mean to have autumn in your heart? Is this just an aesthetic flourish, a fancy way of saying that Jews have the souls of poets, that our insides glow amber like sunlit leaves? Would the effect be different if Babel had said, instead, that the Jew has spring in his heart?
Perhaps I’m staring too closely, ignoring the forest for the view of a single tree. But ours is a culture of close reads and commentary–think of the Talmud, think of the overflowing comments section on almost any Jewish blog. This is why we wear spectacles on our noses–we study, we struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. Think of the sages up all night in Bnei Brak, arguing over the haggadah. Think of what Hillel said — “the rest is commentary, now go and study” — who understood both the simplicity of morality (Do unto others…) as well as the infinite tessellations of its applications.
There is something about autumn. In autumn, we celebrate the new year. In autumn, the book of death is unshelved, left open for a week; the prospect of unwritten death hangs above us. As the leaves fall and the plants die, we face mortality. We savor the sweetness of life and humble ourselves before nature.
My favorite holiday growing up was Sukkot. Beginning five days after Yom Kippur. The harvest festival, Sukkot, reminds us of our history as itinerant agrarians. Our ancestors would sleep out in their sukkahs during the final weeks of the harvest, before the winter frost. They would sleep under the stars and celebrate the bounty of the harvest. We are meant to do the same.
My family wasn’t particularly religious — we occasionally, but rarely, attended a gaudy synagogue I found spiritually void. But we did have a sukkah every year. My mother, an artist, built one out of wood and painted it blue with white polka dots, and inscribed it with lines from Amichai poems. We would decorate the structure in hay, corn, gourds, and flowers. Friends and family would come over to feast and drink wine. When the crowd had dispersed and the sun disappeared I would make one last trip to the sukkah. I would lie on the grass floor and stare at the stars. I would feel the wind on my face. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I remember feeling small, dwarfed by the universe. Perhaps what I felt was autumn in my heart.
This was a post that previous appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.
As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.
Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.
The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.
The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.
But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.
I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.