Sam Glaser shares his thoughts on the joy of Sukkot.
During the Sukkot holiday, the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles erupts in joyful celebration. Our 40-plus kosher restaurants all have sukkot attached. \
There’s a sukkah on top of Ralph’s supermarket. One could conceivably sukkah hop to a different hut every five minutes and not exhaust the inventory.
Google “Sukkah’s on Fire” to see my music video showcasing an assortment of local sukkot, accompanied by a wacky parody of the Jerry Lee Lewis “Great Balls of Fire” classic. The next video in the cue will likely be my brother Yom Tov’s enormous Jerusalem-based sukkah going up in flames. A well-placed security camera caught the tragic conflagration, and his kids mischievously added my song as a soundtrack.
For those driving down Pico Boulevard, it must look strange to see all the Jews happily parading with palm fronds. I’m sure people wonder what we are doing with those sticks. Well, what are we doing with those sticks? Waving the lulav is perhaps our most primordial chok (superrational commandment). We circulate the four species (willow, myrtle, palm and citron) in six directions during the daily Hallel service and then hold them aloft while marching around the bimah.
It’s really weird and a lot of fun. Some say we are unifying four types of Jews with varying degrees of knowledge and merits. Another theory: the species represent our spine, eyes, mouth and heart. Some say waving in six directions plus the center acknowledges God’s omnipresence. Others maintain it invokes a blessing for rain or favorably impacts the lower seven kabbalistic sefirot (Divine qualities).
We have epic parties of our own in our 20-foot squared sukkah and often potluck with neighboring families. We create a new decorative theme each year; past innovations have included Japanese Spa, Autumnal Splendor, Four Species Disco and my personal favorite, a Nacho Libré-movie inspired Sukkah De Los Luchadores (Mexican masked wrestlers).
When Sukkot arrives, I feel a palpable rush of simchah during that first Minchah/Maariv service. I look around at my peers and can see in their expressions the exuberance of the season. The first minyan on any given holiday is about arrival. We made it — Shehecheyanu! Anything that hasn’t been done by candlelighting won’t be done, and believe me, we never finish everything. When it’s time to cease from melachah (acts of creation), we really do stop. The feeling of letting go is intensely liberating, especially when plunging into the ultimate season of joy, Sukkot.
I strive to keep the joy flowing all eight days of the week. I go into a half-time work mode so I can attend parties and chill in my own sukkah. Jewish law stipulates that any formal meals (involving motzi or m’zonot blessings over bread) must be eaten in a sukkah. Not that I have to be coerced to dine al fresco — I love my sukkah! My kids each get their own carefully selected lulav and etrog and we proudly march about every morning holding aloft our arba minim (four species). This holiday offers permission for even the stodgy, stoic types to get on the same happy page, 24/7. We relish in the feeling of victory after our assumed favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah and whitewashing on Yom Kippur. Most of us have spent a month-and-a-half of heightened scrutiny of our personal balance sheet. We reconnect with our true purpose; our elation is heartfelt.
Sukkot in Israel
I wish everyone could experience what it’s like to be in Israel during Sukkot. As much as I love celebrating in L.A., there is nothing like the unfettered joy of Sukkot in the Promised Land. In Israel, the celebration of Sukkot is of another dimension.
Sukkot is indeed the capital of joy. Just sitting in a sukkah is a delightful mitzvah. The rest of the world relies on the permanence of well-built buildings and homes. Jews believe the only shelter we truly need is under the wings of our Creator, as represented by the fragile sukkah. This is where we feel totally secure and totally joyous.
When our forefather Yaakov made it back to the Holy Land after dealing with his crooked father-in-law Lavan for 22 years, the first city he established was named after the temporary pens for his flocks, Sukkot. In the words of Chassidic master Rabbi Leibele Eiger, at that moment he made permanent the condition of impermanence. Our human fragility can be a source of consternation or celebration. As Jews, we are commanded to celebrate!
May we all merit to rejoice together in the ultimate sukkah in our Homeland, bimheira b’yameinu (speedily in our days).
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his compositions and produces music in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio.