Muriel's balcony sukkah in S.F., with paper lanterns that recall her family tradition of celebrating the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival, which coincides with Sukkot. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Muriel's balcony sukkah in S.F., with paper lanterns that recall her family tradition of celebrating the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival, which coincides with Sukkot. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

My mid-Sukkot slump — Kohelet is a real downer

Sukkot Diary: Part Two of Three

On Oct. 6, at the sukkah at University of San Francisco, I helped lead Shabbat evening services with my synagogue, The Kitchen. My rabbi, Noa Kushner, gave a short drash (“So you can have more time to just enjoy the sukkah”) that further clarified my reasons for presenting our readers with this laundry list of every sukkah I’m going to this week.

One time in Muir Woods, she was taking in the sight of a particular tree. She saw someone walk up to the tree, take a selfie with it, and then leave. And she watched a stream of people doing the same thing: walk up, selfie, leave; walk up, selfie, leave; etc. As Noa told this story, service-goers nodded and chuckled knowingly.

Then she said: “Sukkot is like the tree.”

Sukkot Day Three, Oct. 7

Rooftop Kohelet

I was invited to a Shabbat lunch and Kohelet reading in a rooftop sukkah with a stunning view north into the Mission and east to Bernal. The weather continued to cooperate beautifully here in San Francisco.

It was a leisurely lunch, followed by some lounging and singing in the sukkah. The crowd was all Mission Minyan regulars, and our host was the true Hostess With The Mostest, Aviva Kanoff. She has a real passion for bringing people together.

Following lunch and lounging, we heard Kohelet read in the beautiful, lilting festival trope that gives a unique sound to Ruth, Kohelet (aka Ecclesiastes) and Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs). These three books from Ketuvim (Writings, one of the Bible’s three sections) are each assigned to one festival. Ruth goes with Shavuot, Shir HaShirim with Passover — and, quite puzzlingly, Kohelet with Sukkot.

Our liturgy calls Sukkot a zman simchateinu, a time of rejoicing. And yet, in the midst of our rejoicing, we read the Bible’s most pessimistic book, chock full of nihilism and subversive ideas. Kohelet is a meandering, poetic, philosophical meditation on whether literally anything matters. Everything that there is to say has been said, everything that there is to do has been done — and in the end, none of it matters, says Kohelet. It is all haveil havalim, a vanity of vanities. We, and all of our achievements, will amount to so much dust in the end.

Kohelet is the perfect biblical book for our age of irony and contradiction. Kohelet understands our world — a world that demands our engagement with both hedonism and horror, often at the same time. We feel powerless and tempted by meaninglessness in the face of endless shootings, natural disasters, and on and on — yet we are also called to help with those things. Kohelet tells us to rejoice in what simple pleasures we can find — before we all die and rot and return to nothingness. It should be a tough pill to swallow, but I find it more and more seductive.

So here I am in this gorgeous sukkah, on a gorgeous day, with a gorgeous view and gorgeous people — and I’m sitting here listening to three of them take turns reading the stunning biblical nihilism of Kohelet. Another layer in the bizarre onion of Sukkot’s eccentric set of symbols and rituals. And so I was left with the unresolved question of Kohelet bouncing around my head as the holiday marched on.

Sukkot Day Four, Oct. 8

Harvest Moon meets Sukkot

My friend Avi invited me to hang out with him and our mutual friend Muriel at her balcony sukkah, just a block or two from Dolores Park. It was another lovely day in the Mission and another sukkah with an outrageously good view.

We and several other friends of Muriel took in the jingoism and death-defying stunts of the Blue Angels. The consensus was that fighter jets are horrifying instruments of death and a gross misuse of American tax dollars — and also undeniably very cool.

Muriel’s sukkah was hung with paper lanterns in honor of the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Muriel taught me about the mid-autumn moon festivals celebrated by many East Asian cultures. Her family has a history in China going back a couple generations, so the Harvest Moon Festival has become a regular family tradition. The bright, full moon that we saw at the beginning of Sukkot is the same moon that is celebrated at this time of year in China. And the themes of the two festivals overlap: celebrating the harvest, prayers for a bountiful future, spending time with friends and family.

The Harvest Moon Festival is marked by lots and lots of bright paper lanterns in China. Accordingly, the roof of Muriel’s sukkah was hung with lanterns.

Avi is one of my most learned friends. So I came with a question for him: What’s the deal with Kohelet and Sukkot? “Wellll…” he said.

There’s no easy answer. Avi noted two theories in particular: first, that Kohelet was paired with Sukkot to make sure we don’t get too happy and joyful; and second, that Kohelet is actually more hedonistic and in line with the feel of Sukkot than it appears.

That second explanation appeals to me. Kohelet is an admission of the complexity and impermanence of life and happiness, as if we are throwing up our hands and proclaiming our zman simchateinu pointless. But at the same time, Kohelet contradicts itself, telling us to revel in the small joys with which we are presented — including, I assume, Sukkot.

Israelis, hot dogs and Moshav

I left Muriel’s place and headed for a Sukkot event at Spark Arts, an art gallery in the Castro. Aviva, my hostess for the reading of Kohelet the day before, is the owner. She organized a ticketed Sukkot barbecue featuring Moshav, the L.A.-based Israeli act that combines contemporary sounds with Carlebach and traditional Mizrahi tunes to create a unique sound. (I first saw them last year at Selichot.)

The event also featured hot dogs grilled by typically unflappable Israelis on a precarious, flimsy-looking gas stove in the backyard behind the studio. There was a lovely sukkah as well, of course, though it was too cramped to be of much use to the 50 or so attendees.

A Sukkot BBQ at Spark Arts in the Castro (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
A Sukkot BBQ at Spark Arts in the Castro (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

After about an hour in the backyard — filled to the brim with chatting Jews, munching on hot dogs and slaw — we went inside the gallery to see Moshav. The atmosphere inside was mellow, though the music at times was not. It was a lovely event — a zman simchateinu for sure. But then the lead singer/drummer told a glowing story about his hero Shlomo Carlebach hugging every single woman in the crowd at a concert at a women’s prison. Given what we now know of Carlebach’s treatment of women, I couldn’t stomach it. Still weighed down by Kohelet, I called it a night.

With many homes destroyed in wildfires and URJ Camp Newman burned, and all the pain and suffering from storms in Texas and Puerto Rico, Sukkot’s theme of the fragility of shelter hits me in the gut this year. It was a downer ending to a weekend of beautiful sukkahs. And now we must look ahead to a week sure to be full of more devastating wildfire news.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky