When Home Is a Blessing

Editor's Notebook

By Jane Eisner

Published October 11, 2011, issue of October 14, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When I grew up, Sukkot felt like an after-thought following the intensity and purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. No one in my Reform community in a lower-middle-class suburb of New York City ever built a sukkah; instead, we decorated the one at the synagogue — stringing together dried cranberries and making endless links with colored construction paper — and then sat in the finished project a couple of times throughout the week, as long as the weather held.

Only years later, when I had my own family and my own backyard, did my husband and I put up our own sukkah. It is his design — unique and surprisingly sturdy — and when the children were little they would camp out together until the cold, uncomfortable ground drove them inside for hot chocolate and a warm bed.

That’s the blessing of Sukkot in my community. There’s a warm bed to go to when the night air becomes inhospitable; there’s a dry table inside if rain leaves giant puddles on the outside furniture and the s’chach droops so low that relaxed dining is impossible.

We enjoy the sukkah best when it is just an alternative to home, a symbolic reminder, an echo of the past. But what if it is the present? What if a temporary shelter like this is actually home?

For too many people on the planet, “home” is a temporary notion — a series of flimsy, unreliable shelters — as fragile forever as our sukkah is meant to be for a week. The housing crisis in the United States has led to record foreclosures; the housing crisis in Israel has led to unprecedented demonstrations in the streets.

But the housing crisis in developing countries has no such public face, and its circumstances are arguably more dire. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion people live in inadequate shelter around the world, and one billion of those live in slums. To raise awareness about the right to shelter and the responsibility to ensure it, the U.N. created World Habitat Day, which this year fell on October 3.

I know. I hadn’t heard about World Habitat Day, either, until I researched this essay. I think that’s because the problem of homelessness is vast enough to be incomprehensible, and distant enough to be invisible. I confess that I didn’t fully appreciate what it meant until visiting Haiti last year, eight months after the earthquake, to see row upon row of makeshift tents furnished with only the barest necessities, which served as housing for more than a million people. I fear that many of those whom I met then still have not found a safe, permanent dwelling.

Last year, Union Square in New York City was the site of a remarkable exhibition called “Sukkah City,” with 12 innovative sukkah designs selected by an esteemed jury and mounted in the middle of the nation’s largest city. Each sukkah adhered to the parameters of a “kosher” sukkah but presented a radical perspective on the traditional form. One of the chosen entries, Sukkah of the Signs — created by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello — was built from the signs of homeless people that the artists purchased and then arranged in a conelike structure open to the sky.

“Just as the sukkah commemorates shelter provided during the 40 desert-wandering years of Exodus, the design for our sukkah brings attention to the contemporary state of homelessness and wandering,” the artists explained.

We who have the luxury of sitting in our own sukkahs for just a week have an obligation to remember those for whom temporary structures are shelter for a lifetime, and home an elusive blessing.

A version of this essay appears as part of the Chag v’Chesed series published by American Jewish World Service.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.