A Sukkah of Peace

26th of Tevet, Monday evening, January 7, 2013

The wind howled all last night, keeping me awake. As we walked to synagogue early this morning, Chaim and I had to navigate downed trees which held up traffic. As a result of the weather there was no tenth for a minyan until the very, very end of the service, with me nearly in tears for fear there wouldn’t be one at all. (A minyan is a quorum of the ten required in order to say certain prayers, including the mourners’ kaddish which I was there to recite in honor of my mother’s yahrzeit. Fortunately, one of the recitations of this prayer occurs at the very end of the service.)

Observing yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) and yizkor (a memorial service that takes place 4 times a year on the holy days of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot) is very important to me. Typically, I lead the morning shacharit service or read Torah on the days of my parents’ yahrzeits to honor them. This year was a compromise, only going in order to recite the mourners’ kaddish prayer. When that door looked closed, I found myself getting incredibly anxious, wondering where I would find another minyan at that now-late hour of 8 AM, since most weekday services here start between 6:30 and 7 AM.

I was sobered (many egalitarian congregations seem to have a tough time getting a quorum for a daily minyan), but ultimately relieved, as we headed home through pouring rain and a wind that kept blowing my umbrella inside out. Near our corner a very large tree had newly fallen across the main thoroughfare, blocking traffic in both directions, pulling down electric wires, and causing a power outage in our neighborhood. It took most of the day, about seven hours, for the power to be restored. (Now I can commiserate even more with friends and family who lost power for days during Hurricane Sandy). In the meantime, Chaim and I hunkered down in many layers of clothing in the cold to read by what light we had in the apartment. Every time we attempted to venture out to a cafe thinking there had been a break in the rain, another downpour sent us scrambling back home with even more wet clothes.  I hadn’t slept all night, so I wasn’t even up for a museum on this cold and lay-low day. Tomorrow it is even supposed to snow, a rare Jerusalem occurrence.

We are staying in a little neighborhood called the Greek Colony on Yehoash Street, Yehoash being one of the ancient kings of Israel mentioned in the Bible. Every neighborhood seems to have a theme (or multiple themes) in its street names. We live in a neighborhood of kings and other Biblical characters (including Yehoshafet, Ruth, and Jonathan, all of which branch off a main street named Rachel Immenu, Our Mother Rachel). A few blocks away are a few streets named for pre-State Hebrew newspapers like Ha-Melitz Street (a Hebrew newspaper published in Russia), HaTzefirah Street (published in Poland), and HaMaggid Street (published in Prussia and distributed throughout the Pale of Settlement). Close to those blocks is another section named for statesmen like Prime Minister Lloyd George of England (not sure why he got a street named for him in Israel since he considered Hitler “the greatest living German”), Prime Minister Jan Smuts of South Africa, and Czech Prime Minister Tomas Masaryk, still considered the great symbol of democracy to both the Czech and Slovakian Republics. (There is also a Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk in the Galilee that was founded by Czech Jews.)

Another neighborhood, where my friend Susan lives, is named for the sons of Jacob (also known as the 12 tribes of Israel): Asher, Dan, Reuven, Naftali, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, etc. Further towards the city center there are a couple of streets named for Yiddish writers like Shalom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sefarim.

Walking the streets is walking Jewish history through the ages, both ancient and modern. Some of the signs give the footnotes to the name while others don’t, which encourages us to come home, Google, and learn. (Regarding the Googling, my friend Bili spent over an hour on the phone with a guy named Max from the Israeli phone company, Bezeq, and got my Internet up and running. Apparently Macs — no pun intended — have a hard time synching in Israel.)

While the street names honor both Jew and non-Jew in the history of the city, one of the disturbing aspects of the names is the Judaizing of certain long-standing neighborhood names. Though we are close to a neighborhood well-known as Katamon (a Greek name meaning “under the monastery) it has been given an official Hebrew name, Gonen. Likewise, the street signs directing you to the neighborhood of Baka’a (Arabic for “valley) call it Geulim, with Baka’a in parentheses. Nonetheless, everyone still calls it Baka’a. An even more vicious outgrowth of the “invisibilizing” of the Muslim culture of Jerusalem is the blotting out of the Arabic in signs and placards around the city that routinely offer explanations in Hebrew, English and Arabic. We noticed this on informational signs outside the Jaffa Gate to the Old City, as well as on “Slow Down” traffic signs for drivers around the city. It is a kind of vandalism that breaks my heart, it being so purposefully malicious and intolerant of the Other, as if the very language of Arabic is to be despised and expunged. As we travel around, I will continue to monitor this phenomenon to determine how widespread and rampant it actually is.

So the photo I post today is a street name that brought me great joy and a modicum of hope when Chaim pointed it out to me yesterday, just outside of Mahane Yehuda market. It is Rehov Sukkat Shalom, the Shelter of Peace Street.

A sukkah, like peace itself, is a fragile and vulnerable thing. It is a temporary structure that Jews build on the holiday of Sukkot to symbolize our vulnerability in the face of Mother Nature or in the face of political events (even God’s own House, the great Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans, is referred to as a sukkah) .

A sukkat shalom/a sukkah of peace never claims to be permanent, but it is the most we can ask for in a world waiting yet to be redeemed.

So when we Jews pray for peace, invoking an image of a sukkat shalom, the tradition apparently doesn’t expect us to demand (or receive) the whole kit and caboodle. Praying for and receiving even a bissele of peace, a little sukkah of peace (like what I experienced at Congregation Kol HaNeshama on Shabbat — the visit from the Muslim-Jewish delegation on Friday night and  the Kadi’s sermon the next morning) is enough for a start.



One thought on “A Sukkah of Peace

  1. Beautifully written! I’m so glad you had your minion, that you might get to see snow in Jerusalem, and that your are so appreciating the gift of your time there!

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