Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.
Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.
A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies. If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.
I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice.
But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.
Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water. Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.
Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.
This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.
In my neighborhood, Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine. This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.
How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt. Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.
So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.