Archive for September, 2010

ReImagining the Sukkah

September 19, 2010

Can't make it to the Sukkah? Let the Sukkah come to you...

“Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture. The sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted. It calls on us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, to reconnect with an agricultural past, and to take a moment to dwell on–and dwell in–impermanence.” (Sukkah City 2010)

Each fall, Jews around the world erect temporary structures (sukkahs) in which we gather for prayer and meals during the 8 day holiday of Sukkot.  As suggested above, the Sukkah refers both to the biblical story of the Jews nomadic, 40-year journey through the desert, and the harvest season – two times when temporary shelters have served us well.  It is a wonderful tradition with families and communities coming together to build and decorate their “huts.”  And, it couldn’t happen during a better season.  The fall is a wonderful time to be outdoors, taking in the last bits of nice weather before the cold sets in.  In addition, we are required to leave the roof open enough that we can gaze at the stars, which doesn’t feel like much of a struggle.
This Sukkot, an exhibition in New York City’s Union Square called Sukkah City 2010 will feature 12 radical Sukkah designs.  Sukkah City is the brainchild of freelance journalist Joshua Foer  and Reboot founder Roger Bennett.  Over 600 artists and architects responded to the call for proposals, all of which can be seen at   In addition to infusing this ancient tradition with some innovative thinking, these works of art have a place in the contemporary artworld’s interests in social issues like homelessness.  Many artists and designers over the past decade have explored the issue of temporary housing in their studios and workshops.
“We had over 600 entrants, so it was really a diverse set of answer to how this structure could be imagined. Some designers engaged with the idea of ephemerality. Some engaged directly with the idea of collective memory, a structure meant to provoke collective memory. Some engaged with the idea that the structure confront social justice issues. […] Some of the structures were just little beautiful jewels that are just stunning little pavilions. The idea is that the 12 together will speak to the diversity of responses. It’s not the 12 best sukkahs but the one best sukkah city.”
Here are a few of my top picks.  Hoping this will inspire us to do something new in our OWU Sukkah, this or sometime in the future….
Sukkah of Signs – Foer’s top choice…

A Forward Thinking Al Chet (Confession)?

September 13, 2010

“For all these sins, may the force that makes forgiveness possible, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.”

The Al Chet is a list of sins Jews recite as many as 10 times over the 24 hours that make up Yom Kippur.  You can read a translation of the traditional Al Chet in various places online.  I like this one at because it includes commentary and questions to get you thinking about your personal relationship to these trangressions.  We confess as a community to all 44 sins on the list, regardless of whether or not we believe we are guilty of them or not for as the prayer suggests – we commit some sins consciously and others unconsciously.

Years ago, I heard a Rabbi at Yale University speak of the tradition of pounding one’s fist against one’s chest during the Al Chet.  His wife, he reported, had suggested that perhaps this mild form of self-flagellation was inappropriate.  Rather than punishing ourselves for our transgressions, shouldn’t we be trying to heal ourselves as we entered the new year?  Afterall, the spirit to which we ask pardon is of one of eternal forgiveness, not eternal damnation, right?  Since then, I have always rubbed, rather than pounded on, my heart during Al Chet.

At our Tashlich service last week, we read an alternate version of Al Chet (see below) as we cast breadcrumbs (our sins) into Delaware Run.  You can find other alternate Al Chet readings online as well like this one from the Velveteen Rabbi (great name, right?).  I mentioned to the group assembled that I like the following list because it includes things we are sorry we didn’t do in the past year.  In so doing, it suggests how we can change our behavior in the coming year.  Can you choose a few things from the list to commit to doing in 5771?

Al Chet (2006)
Judy, Stew, and Jessica Albert

We have sinned

By yielding to confusion and falling into passivity

By indulging in fear

By giving into anger

By not standing up for ourselves

By thinking about Jewish values only on holy days

By tolerating global warming, global disease and global poverty

By being cynical about repairing the world

By not defending Israel

By not defending Palestine

By not standing up to fanaticism, terrorism, rape, and torture – no matter who the perpetrators are

By not rocking the boat

By not being grateful for our blessings

By no loving enough

By being indifferent to the rich getting richer and the poor staring miserable

By allowing greed, in others and in ourselves, to go unchecked

By not opposing laws that promise false security and deprive us of our freedoms and civil liberties

By not oposing ballot measures that deprive us of basic rights

By building fences on our borders

By not actively opposing war and invasion of soverign nations

By being paralyzed by paranoia and hatred

By living in the past and the future but not in the present

By forgetting that we are co-creators of the Universse

By not visiting the sick and the dying

By not making the most of the limited time we hae

By speaking lashen hara

By forgetting how to smile

By hiding from our wrongdoings

By putting a stumbling block before the blind

By not searching for the truth, wherever it lies

By not recognizing the divine spark that dwells at the center of our being

By not forgiving and asking God for forgiveness

For all these sins, may the force that makes forgiveness possible, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.

The Days We Stand in Awe

September 8, 2010

(This Jewish New Year marks 5771.
Makes 2010 sound like nothing, right?)

Like so many other Jewish academics, I have long sung the praises of the convergence of the Jewish New Year and the new academic year.  What better time to ask ourselves: What will this year bring?  What new doors will open up before me?  What opportunities will present themselves?  And, most importantly in relation to the processes of t’shuvah (repentance and return) what challenges will I encounter?

Having the year start at the end of the summer, as the gardens and grasses go dormant, rather than in the dead of winter when everything is already in hibernation also makes better sense to me.  When we look at the natural world around us, we can see signs of life in repose.  As I watch the Golden Finches dine on the seeds of deadheaded flowers in my garden, I ask myself if I took the time to appreciate those flowers while they were in bloom.  Did I make the most out of my summertime walks with Elsa (my four-legged companion) and was a patient enough with her when she wanted to stop and take in all the smells of the other dogs in our neighborhood?  Did I make the most of my time with my step-children while they were off from school?

Between now and Yom Kippur, we will literally stand for many of our prayers.  The act of standing helps awaken our consciousness, it keeps us alert and actively engaged in the acts of reflection and repentance.  We stand in awe of where we have been and where we might be going.  We do not sit and watch the world pass us by.

Rosh haShanah is about spiritual rebirth.  In 5771 I will be reborn as a biological mother.  I will face many challenges in that role.  I appreciate having this opportunity to reflect on, atone for, and move beyond the marks I may have missed in the past year so I can enter this new phase of my life as open and free as possible.

Here are a few questions I will use to help me reflect.  I hope you might find them useful as well.

Think about a major milestone that happened with your family in this last year. How has this affected you?

Describe a broader event in the world that has impacted you this year? How? Why?

Consider something that you wish you had done differently this past year?  How would you have done it differently and how can you learn from it to improve how things turn out in the future?

Is there a part of yourself that you want to work on in this new year?

(Questions derived from