A Strasbourg Sukkot

By Barbara Honigmann

Translation Margaret May

 

Our whole quarter had turned more and more into a “second ghetto,” with many young Jewish families moving in and setting up their “Shearim” house of prayer and instruction in a nearby street. Our local district mayor, who is very concerned with peaceful inter-faith relations, even made a little speech at its dedication ceremony. So Peter felt that the time had come to erect a “sukkah,” a tabernacle or booth, in our courtyard. This would mean we’d no longer have to make our way through the streets every year during the eight-day Sukkot festival lugging bags of pots and bowls full of ready-prepared meals to eat in communal sukkahs. Nor would we constantly have to be invited to the tables of others who had no problem getting permission to build sukkahs in their courtyards or on their balconies. Peter suggested we put up a sukkah in one of the furthest corners of the courtyard next to the bike stands, small and unobtrusive of course, so that the neighbours wouldn’t take offence. Because I’m afraid of confrontation with the neighbours and by nature or upbringing try to avoid any conflict – in other words, I’m a coward – I didn’t really believe in his project or provide any effective support. But I didn’t oppose it either.

This all came from my bad memories of the first Sukkot we celebrated in Strasbourg, thirty years earlier. Just as we had sat down to eat in the sukkah, the neighbours from the upper floors pelted its canopy – open-weave, of course, as prescribed – with rotten tomatoes and other rubbish. We were actually in a courtyard surrounded by rather grand upper-class apartments dating from the late nineteenth century, in the vicinity of the European Parliament – in other words, one of the “better quarters” of the city. Our host at that time owned the biggest and most long-established kosher butcher’s shop in Strasbourg. So perhaps it was this symbolic figure who was the target of the rotten tomatoes, which gave us all a fright when they thudded down with a noise that reverberated round the courtyard. Most of the people who had gathered in the sukkah came from the “Etz Chaim” community, which was still mainly German-speaking, and they would often invite us when we first moved to Strasbourg and were learning French.

In New York, by contrast, there was even at that time a whole Sukkah City in Union Square, as I read in the paper. Young architects took part in a competition to build sukkahs in all conceivable materials and shapes, and these remained there during the seven-day festival (which lasts eight days in the diaspora). They were not just for show, either: people were allowed to sit inside them to consume their festive meals.

Here in Strasbourg everything is much more discreet, but immediately after Yom Kippur, four days before Sukkot, you can see a crop of sukkahs suddenly sprouting out of the ground, as it were, dotted around on balconies and in courtyards. Moreover, the Jewish community and the whole panoply of synagogues and other informal places of prayer and instruction will put up sukkahs to which you can bring your pre-prepared meals. There you meet other families and share a table with them, either eating together or at different sittings. You unpack your food and pack it up again while the children go off to play and then have to be told to calm down, so it’s like a campsite. That’s how we’ve been doing it for years.

But Peter was quite convinced that it was time to build our own sukkah. He went from door to door in our apartment block, explaining Project Sukkah at great length to all our neighbours, assuring them that we wouldn’t be creating any disturbance or mess, saying the whole thing only lasted eight days, and asking them to agree. Eventually he had 29 signatures of consent from neighbours, out of a total of at least five stairwells opening onto the block’s inner courtyard, a communal space housing the refuse bins, a few garages, and a growing number of bikes. He came back and said that most of the neighbours had seen no problem, some were even enthusiastic, others had been in favour, and some had agreed only with reservations. It had to be said that one, an emeritus professor, believed he had to draw Peter into a religious dispute. He argued that the Jews really should not be clinging to such outward signs and medieval regulations but ought by now to be moving with the times. Peter explained to him that these regulations were not in the least bit medieval but in fact dated from ancient times, when the Jews were already living among the most modern peoples and cultures – which, by the by, had long since collapsed – and the whole thing about outward signs was another old canard, which even St Paul had gone on about, to no avail. At which point Peter politely wished him a nice day.

Next Peter took up arms in the bureaucratic battle and sent a letter to the house management requesting a vote at the general meeting of apartment owners on whether permission for the temporary erection of a sukkah in the courtyard should be granted. For Peter, punctiliousYekke that he is, had decided to pursue the legal route. There followed a short war over formalities, in which we even took on a lawyer – a friend of ours, of course. And this was followed by a back and forth of letters, warnings, and reprimands, until finally the house management decided that our Project Sukkah contravened the house rules and some regulation or other, but it didn’t impose anything like a ban as a result of this decision. It simply didn’t put the issue on the agenda for a vote. So since there had been no pronouncement, neither permission nor prohibition, we interpreted the undefined legal position to our advantage, according to the principle that whatever has not been expressly forbidden is allowed, and we ordered a sukkah online from the American Sukka Depot Center. Delivery was prompt, and all the appropriate accessories were included, according to the rabbinical directives and dimensions, no smaller and no bigger, all cleverly put together in a kit that could be conveniently stored in your cellar for reuse the following year. The materials for sukkahs have developed in parallel with the general equipment for camping, hiking, climbing, trekking, and other outdoor activities. They are light yet sturdy, water-repellent, quick-drying, and require absolutely no tools for their construction, everything just slots together. The kit also contains the S’chach, the canopy. Ours is made of bamboo, though some people just lay branches across the walls. According to regulations the canopy has to be made so that it is not really secure but lets in light and sun, and wind and rain too, and you have to be able to see through it. In this way it is meant to remind us how unsheltered and unprotected we are in this world and how full of holes our lives are. Yet also, because the festival always falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month, if it’s not cloudy you can gaze admiringly at the full moon shining from afar in the starry sky.

On the Sabbath, which inevitably occurs during the festival, the words of Solomon the Preacher from Ecclesiastes are read out: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … there is a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away.” Jews need to be reminded of this when they are sitting in these makeshift, unstable, and draughty huts – reminded of the fragility and uncertainty of their existence. And they must compensate for this with tenacity and adaptability, just as they did after the exodus out of Egypt, when they lived in tents in the wilderness – that empty, uncertain place where their newly won freedom consisted primarily in not knowing where to go next, what to do, or how things would turn out.

So for several years now, for about a week in autumn, our sukkah has its place, unobtrusive but impossible to ignore, in a corner of the courtyard next to the bicycles. It has two windows, and we always leave these open so that people can look in and observe us and see that we’re not slaughtering Christian children or engaging in any other unseemly activity. Moreover, we’ve fixed a note to it, protected by a plastic pocket in case it should rain, which says in large type: “Dear Neighbours, this little structure is only temporary and serves as the tabernacle for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which ends this year on …. If you have any questions or comments, please ring at the Honigmann door. Many thanks for your understanding.”

Then for eight days, at least twice a day, we move down from our second-floor flat into the courtyard, carrying food and drink, pots, plates, and glasses. Sometimes it’s quite chilly and we have to put on warm socks and a coat – after all, it is already autumn, and we’re living in exile in a northern land – and we sit squashed together rather uncomfortably, a bit like true nomads.

So far there has been only one incident, when some students in a neighbouring flat were having a noisy party. Around midnight they started throwing bottles and burning cigarette butts out of the window, and some of these fell onto the sukkah. But the bamboo canopy managed to withstand this, because even though bamboo does burn, it’s hard to ignite. Other neighbours had already called the police because of the noise, and the party was brought to an end by the guardians of law and order.

When the eight days of Sukkot are over, and with it the whole Jewish season of festivals, which begins a good three weeks earlier with Rosh Hashana – some people call this flood of feast days the “tunnel” – we emerge in a state of some spatial and temporal confusion, feeling a bit jet-lagged. Now we tell one another about our experiences with friendly or unfriendly neighbours. The biggest conflicts, apart from those with dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites, are with anti-religious Jews, who just can’t see why the city tolerates such religious practices and call the police to enforce what they see as the secular order of the French republic. Sometimes they even saddle their neighbours and fellow Jews with lawsuits. Of all the anecdotes told about Sukkot experiences, the favourite is always the one about the policemen who are called out and actually do hand out a formal warning, stipulating that this construction, this tabernacle, must be removed – and indeed within no more than eight days. And this always provokes great mirth and roars of laughter among all those observing this eight-day-long festival.

 

Excerpted from Chronik meiner Straße (A Chronicle of my Street).  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2015.