I went to my friend’s sukkah. He’s the last person I expected to be legit now. He was always doing crazy things: sleeping in line overnight in the hope of getting on Australian Idol*, running into Liza Minelli at a piano bar and dueting with her. We were friends when I first got to Melbourne, when I was dating my wife. He helped me break free: on the nights I had too much, when I needed to yank the emergency cord and grab a beer.
Now he’s got a wife of his own. She’s respectable and responsible. She’s surprisingly down-to-earth, for someone who would marry him. He showed me around his house (he has a house), which is almost scarily suburban, except that he has a skateboard hanging on the wall that was turned into Aboriginal art. His daughter played with my kids (he has a daughter). As much as I never thought I’d become a responsible adult, I really never thought he would. But somehow, all these things — a house, a kid — when I encountered them didn’t feel unnatural or weird or fundamentally surprising.
The thing that threw me was his sukkah. This hut that he constructed with his own hands — out of a box, yes, but still — and garnered palm leaves for its roof. Buying a flat is a big deal, but it doesn’t feel real. Rich kids at my college bought their own flats. And having a kid, well, in my junior high school it was basically the equivalent of showing how much of a man you were (rhetorical question: I was not much of a man at all). But putting up a sukkah — today, as much as it has ever been — feels real in a grounded, intense, real-world way that’s realer than The Real World ever was or claimed to be. This isn’t you hanging out with your girlfriend in a place you both rented and calling yourselves grownups. This is you building a hut out of pipe cleaners and committing to live in it for one week a year, every year, for the rest of your life.
1 1/2: Sukkahs = reality
The classic Jewish wisdom regarding sukkahs is this: For one week a year, we live in a sukkah. We get our of our houses and eat/sleep/hang in a hut with a dirt floor and a roof made of palm fronds or bamboo or other plant matter. We live in shaky, squishy huts in order to get away from our usual routine, to remind ourselves that, as much as we want to run our lives, Hashem is the one in control.
My friend Bram and I go out. It’s the first night after a 3-day span of no-electricity days. I am stuffed with way too much food and craving artistic stimulation. We spend all night beating out the plot of the novel he’s working on — it’s due in a few weeks and the ending is kicking his butt. Weirdly, even though the past 3 days have been a nonstop fressathon, we go out and get food, to my favorite sketchily-kosher fast food chain (but it’s all vegan) (and possibly THE BEST FRIES EVER) and bring it back to his sukkah.
Yeah, Bram has a sukkah — Bram, whom I met 12 years ago when he was touring with his Jewish punk-rock band and I was touring with my poetry, and he stuffed a shofar full of hummus and blew it on the audience and I slamdanced on a bunch of thrown-away props from the ’90s movie P.S.U., which was based on a real-life anti-frat in whose basement we were playing a show — don’t worry if that makes no sense. The punchline is, we were going crazy. And 12 years later, we’re sitting in his sukkah eating vegan fast food, I have a children’s book coming out in a month and his is not far behind, and we’re surrounded by a bunch of research books from his study and we are talking, maybe not like adults but about adult things. And he and his girlfriend have made this structure with their own four hands. And they aren’t Orthodox, I think it’s safe to say, by any stretch of the imagination, but here was the fruit of the labour; here was the burnished tray upon which they brought out their tea, here were the three of us, talking and acting like adults. The wind raged. We pressed closer together, curled up more into our tea.
Tonight Moshe Hendel played a show — not in his sukkah, in his living room, but the reception afterward was in the sukkah and there was something indelibly sukkahlike about it. He lives here in Melbourne but he (and his family, and his bandmate Zev Gelber) are moving to Israel at the end of the year. He might become a farmer. He might keep being a social worker — G-d knows Israel has enough social issues to warrant it.
A few months ago he had a crowdfunder for his new album, and we pledged, more than we can probably afford, knowing there was no way we’d be in Australia for the VIP concert. And hey, I happened to be in Australia. And it was amazing, and transformative, and I probably cried more than I’d admit (hey, it was a dark room), and I can’t wait till the album is out so that you guys can hear it. Till then, here’s a tiny piece:
It got me thinking that maybe the real sukkah isn’t outside, a tarp wrapped around a bunch of pieces of wood. Maybe it’s this entire existence. And maybe we need to rip it all away, to move to Israel or move beyond dancing on ripped-up furniture or standing in all-night audition lines. Not that any of us should ever stop doing that. But we should also realize that we are not limited by that, that the wind isn’t only whipping in our faces, or that it’s whipping in our faces but the wind is only as real as we let it get.
* — which probably shouldn’t need explanation, but: American Idol, only Australian. Which should only affect their accents, but really changes something fundamental about the dynamic of the show. Like, it kind of feels like all the contestants are about to take a swing at the judges. And everyone reminds you a teeny tiny bit of Crocodile Dundee.