Having grown up in Athens–where there were ritual greetings for every occasion, including the first day of each month–and in New England, which does the change of the seasons more intensely than any other U.S. region I know, I’ve been missing Fall here in Miami Beach, which alternates between hot and rainy pretty much year round. In fact, I miss the change of seasons in general, and the Halloween decorations that appear in stores in August, and the Christmas trees Ispotted yesterday in Walgreens don’t do it for me; they don’t count as signs of time moving in its cyclical fashion, swapping out one rich epoch for the next.
On the other hand, like a true hypocrite, I love sitting in the sunshine on Lincoln Road sipping coffee, regardless of the time of year. I was enjoying an iced coffee as Amalía napped in her carriage last week when an adorable two-year-old girl with curly hair, a crinoline skirt, and the cutest little sunhat walked past holding her daddy’s hand. I looked up to see who had spawned such a lovely little thing and saw that the dad was wearing a yarmulke and carrying palm fronds and other reeds. That’s when, as my mother would say, the penny dropped, and I had a realization: it was Sukkot!
I didn’t really know much about the Jewish holiday; as far as I could recall it involved building little houses in the backyard, which sounds like fun to me. But I felt an immediate rush of autumnal excitement even thinking of the word, as the mention of Sukkot brings me right back to the first bat mitzvah I ever attended, which had a Sukkot theme. The bat mitzvah girl was my friend Maxine, who was a year ahead of me in school and already possessed of the kind of timeless elegance that makes a girl have a Sukkot-themed bat mitzvah instead of, say, a Disco Inferno dance party or a Hollywood red carpet shindig. Despite the fact that was 1986, at this elegant affair there were no boxer shorts favors that said “I danced my pants off at Maxine’s bat mitzvah”. Instead there were harvest decorations everywhere, and the celebrant wore a black velvet drop waist dress that had autum leaf details around the neckline.
1986 was a different era in Bat Mitzvahs; it was possible for a girl working on her Haftorah portion then to be the first female in her family to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, and one of the stock photos taken at the event involved the celebrant looking pensively at an empty chair which bore the name of a girl her age in the Soviet Union who could not observe the ritual and practice her religion in the Evil Empire (which still existed then; I am that old).
Like all pre-adolescent gentiles, at the time I was profoundly jealous of the party my Jewish friends got. (Although now it’s a comfort to me that an album of pictures of me at 13 will not be passed down through generations.) My parents assured me that my baptism had been an equally festive catered affair with not one but two bands, but since I was 11 months old at the time, I didn’t remember it at all (although I did manage to cut a rug, toddling onto the dance floor until my grandfather removed the glass of wine he’d been balancing on his head while he danced to pick me up). In fact, I felt so robbed of certain rites of passage that in college my friends threw me a batutante party for my 21st birthday, combining the best of bat mitzvahs and debutante balls into one dorm room. It was a delight, but there was no Sukkot theme, and I think I wore jeans and a baby tee, this being October, 1995.
Although I have no memories at all of my baptism, delightful as I’m sure it was, I can still remember the thrill I felt wearing my first pair of high heels (cream leather pumps) for Maxine’s bat mitzvah. So when I got home from coffee on Lincoln Road, I looked up Sukkot. Also known as the Feast of the Tabernacle, it is a holiday Martha Stewart would love, a harvest festival that also calls upon celebrants’ creativity, as they create sukkah, temporary dwellings that are reminders of the fragile structures the Israelites lived in as they wandered the desert for 40 years after fleeing slavery in Egypt. For seven days, blessings are read in the sukkah, and some people eat meals there and even sleep in their sukkah (easier to do in Miami Beach than in fickle Massachusetts, where my mother told me she had to wipe frost of her windshield one day this month, and my cousin went to the beach the next).
Seeing the father and daughter carrying materials for their sukkah reminded me what I love so much about rituals, even those that I don’t celebrate personally. The fact that certain holiday rituals are practiced year after year makes me feel like we’re all living life, and observing its joys and sorrows, together. A holiday ritual makes me pause and remember where I was last year, or, in the case of Sukkot, twenty-five years ago.
Maxine and I are still dear friends–in fact, we’re much closer than we were in the 80s and have observed many birthdays and rituals together. I texted her from Lincoln Road to say I’d seen a man carrying reeds and ask if this was, in fact, Sukkot, and she called back to say yes it was, and and that the 18th of October would be the very day the Sukkot-themed bat mitzvah had been held 25 years ago. All of which reminded me of something the wandering Israelites must have thought of each time they hastily threw together a house–no matter where you are, or whatever the season, thinking of people you love can instantly make you feel at home.