Building a Great House on Sukkot

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“We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.”
Nicole Krauss

Thousands of years ago, after our first exile in Babylonia, the Jews returned to a land and a covenant that was distant from them. Ezra the Scribe gathered the people and took out a Torah scroll and read to them what they had been missing. And the exiles wept for all that had been lost. Ezra and Nehemiah told them not great houseto cry but to rejoice for it was Rosh Hashanah. “This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep.” They were told to eat, drink and give of their portions to those who had none. The mood changed from one of guilt and sorrow to one of celebration.

A few weeks later, the people were told to go to the mountains and bring leafy branches to construct sukkot, booths to remind them of life in the wilderness. “The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths – the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day – and there was very great rejoicing.” It must have been a remarkable scene, watching the Israelites after years of exile, rejoicing together in their sukkot, recreating Jewish life from fragments.

Nicole Krauss, in her novel
Great House
, captures some of the joy and the pain of a house you once knew that is reconstructed in your memory, the only place in which it exists. We live, she says, to preserve a fragment of a memory and those fragments are made up of the small pieces of our lives that we are trying somehow to return to.

Each year when we build a sukkah, we are trying to recapture the fragments of ancient life in a wilderness, a historical landscape we never experienced. It is a house of our imagination but also built on real memories. We take out the faded decorations that were made by our children years ago. And we understand that building this strange house is the way we erect an altar to layers of memory. We physically put ourselves inside this memory house and live in it for a week.

Posted on October 11, 2011

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