Jews and Native Americans will share rituals under sukkah

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Vallejo's Jewish community presented a symbolic tobacco offering to the city's Native Americans earlier this summer, solidifying plans for a joint Sukkot ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 26.

"I accept tobacco from the Jewish community, and I am committed to the process and I will go to their camp," said Ricky Gonzales, head of the Vallejo Intertribal Council, addressing members of Congregation B'nai Israel.

The tobacco ritual, Gonzales said, comes from the Native American practice of sending smoke to the Creator when asking for peace.

The joint Sukkot celebration between Jews and Native Americans at the Vallejo synagogue is planned as a spiritual event. It is the brainchild of George Farber, a member of B'nai Israel, designed "in the interest of fostering a learning of the ways and rituals of two tribal people in an atmosphere of mutual respect," he said.

Farber's experiences in Vietnam with a Native American fellow soldier who became his mentor started him on a journey of study and introspection. He discovered that "our communities have a great deal in common," Farber said.

As the traditional Jewish harvest festival, Sukkot seemed the perfect occasion to begin to build a bridge of understanding and cooperation between Jews and Native Americans, he said.

A joyful occasion, Sukkot traditionally involves the custom of ushpizin, inviting symbolic guests to the sukkah, including biblical figures, many of whom were wanderers.

The theme of wandering and homelessness is symbolized by the temporary nature of the sukkah and is reflected in the lives of the ushpizin.

At B'nai Israel this year, instead of setting aside an empty chair, as the Sephardim traditionally do, congregations have invited actual guests, whose historical circumstances lend themselves perfectly to traditions of the holiday.

As non-Christian, tribal peoples attempting to maintain their identity and avoid total assimilation and loss of their culture to the larger society, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have much in common with the Jews of the diaspora.

While discussing the details of the Sukkot celebration and attending a number of meetings, both groups recognized other cultural similarities.

"We survived a genocide as the Jews did," said Gonzales, an Aztec-Apache. "It's important that we get together and learn about others and about ourselves. We hope to help make the Sukkot celebration a very spiritual thing for both groups."

The groups also discovered similarities in some of their harvest rituals.

Both cultures are familiar with temporary dwellings, symbolized by the sukkah. In addition, the number 4 — illustrated by the four species shaken in the traditional Sukkot service — also figures symbolically in Native American rituals.

However, while Native American ceremonies address the four directions — north, south, east and west — the Jewish Sukkot ritual includes two additional dimensions, up and down., to symbolize God's universal presence. And instead of shaking the etrog (citron) and lulav (palm bound with willow and myrtle), Native Americans honor the directions with sage and eagle feathers. At the Sukkot celebration, both will bless the sukkah in their own fashion.

"We will do some ceremonial prayer songs with the drums, and bless the sukkah by smudging it," which involves purifying the space with smoke, Gonzales said.

"Creating the best blessed sukkah in the West — possibly in the universe," Farber interjected.

Members of both groups are expressing a growing excitement about the upcoming event.

"It's going to be a great opportunity," said Bill Furry of the intertribal council. "I'll come because we need to see one another as people — as human beings. We need our ethnic identity to know who we are and where we're going and we need to respect one another as human beings."

Eric Fisher, keeper of the council's ceremonial drums, said: "This is a good thing. It will be new for me, and I'm totally learning about you guys now. I had thought that all those church things were the same, and I'm finding that Judaism is different than that. It will be good for both our peoples."

Members of the synagogue also hoped that this year's Sukkot, marking the harvest before winter, will include the reaping of mutual respect, understanding and friendship from seeds planted and nurtured over the past few months.

This year, according to the synagogue's newsletter, "the Festival of Booths is infused with a new significance, as we take the first tentative steps toward the building of a bridge of communication between the People of the Earth and the People of the Book."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.