Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 1999 /20 Tishrei, 5760

The world is my succah

By Aaron B. Cohen -- ON THE EVE of Yom Kippur, as I finished framing out the family succah, the question hit me: What does it mean to build a succah at the close of the 20th Christian century?

It was a lovely, tranquil, suburban Sunday afternoon when my kids and I started work on our succah. Heavy thoughts about the meaning of my actions might have waited for Kol Nidre; why should framing such a simple structure have triggered them?

Maybe I was succumbing to my own brand of millennium fever, preparing for the Jewish festival of Redemption as the wider world stands on the threshold of its own symbolic, calendrical event. Our 5760 will be the non-Jewish world's Y2K. Is it just another year, or just another decade? Is it just another century, or a whole new millennium?


Depends on how you read your Torah of time, I suppose.

In this instance, the act of succah-building was connecting me to more than three millennia of Jewish time. But the passing of the 20th Christian century inevitably crept into my equation.

Grasping the trigger of my electric screwdriver, the first thought to hit me was what a gee whiz epoch the 20th century has been -- a time of gizmos and gadgetry -- as technology developed exponentially. Practically nothing has remained as it was before the dawn of the age of electricity, of the internal combustion engine, of flight, and of digital information.

It's been a media century, when mere syllables have became sweeping symbols, when names have conjured images, capturing worlds of meaning: Titanic, Holocaust, Ho Chi Minh. Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anatoly Sharansky, Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat. Spok. Graucho Marx. Einstein. Golda Meir. Tail fins and Formica, plastic and prozac The Pill. The Beatles. The Killing Fields. Rwanda.

Savoring my freedom to build a succah absolutely without fear, I recalled that it's been a century filled with unspeakable horror, what with 100 million or so people dying violently at the hands of their fellow man.

It was a century of genocide, when Jews, Armenians, Cambodians, and scores of other peoples suffered way more than their "fair" share of tragedy.

Assembling the frame of the succah, the mantra came to me: with a bang not a whimper, in fire not ice does 5760 come in and the Christian century, the Christian millennium go out.

Out goes the century when we Jews suffered our worst catastrophe, the European inferno. In comes the era when we enjoy unprecedented opportunities to build on our greatest triumphs, freedom and prosperity in the American eden, and Jewish return to the Holy Land.

And then the succah -- that fragile place, that fleeting inner space with its roof opening to the heavens -- reminded me that not only by might but by spirit have we Jews been transformed in this century, from world pariah to a people respected and even admired.

My succah, with its pieces purchased at Home Depot, reminded me that we are not only Jews, but also Americans. The liberation of our spirits is an exquisite chapter in the story of the American Century, whose fruits our community has enjoyed in full measure.

But not only are we American Jews, we are citizens of the global village; not only lovers of Israel, but people entwined with all humanity. My succah is not just for my family; its message is universal. No matter how we count time -- Y2K or 5760 -- are we not all bound up in the process of becoming, and challenged by G-d to make choices about who and what we shall become?

By our own hands, in whatever forms our succahs take, must not we -- Jews, Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists --- together build the framework for humanity's redemption?

At the end of a century of unbridled land development, nature is back-in wind and rain, flood and earthquake. How are we, concerned inhabitants of the planet, to appease her?

After a century of exploding population growth, with six billion people now inhabiting the earth, hasn't the time come to develop better the only horizons left open to us-the horizons of our hearts, our minds, and our souls?

Maybe the answer to my question -- what does it mean to build a succah at the close of the 20th century -- is as simple as this: Now is the time to engage with all humanity, to transform this fragile planet into a succas shalom, a dwelling place of peace.

Aaron B. Cohen is executive editor the JUF News, a monthly published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


©1999, JUF News