As a parent, I love the holiday of Sukkot, which begins Friday night. It’s a great family time – lots of al fresco dining, sleeping outdoors, enjoying fresh air, singing, cooking favorite foods, and experiencing a welcome escape from the weightiness of an excessively material life.
There’s nothing like spending eight days inside four walls of canvas to remind us of the value of simplicity.
As a woman, though, I find Sukkot to be one of the most difficult holidays we’ve got. It is laden with messages about gender differences and where women truly belong, and these messages seem to intensify each year.
I used to think it was just the children’s books – you know, pictures of men and boys banging the hammer and nails juxtaposed against pictures of women and girls in aprons or serving soup – which conveyed these messages.
Certainly there are some fantastic authors who challenge these assumptions – such as Ellie Gellman and Shauna Mooney Kawasaki in “Tamar’s Sukkah” and Latifa Berry Kropf and Tod Cohen in “It’s Sukkah Time.”
But there are still enough he-man (bang chest) versions of the Sukkot story out there to make me bristle. They remind me of a story my friend Jessica told me, about how after her mother got divorced, the first thing she did was buy a hammer and nails and hang up her own pictures. As if to say that the hammer was a tool of physical empowerment and thus became her personal symbol of freedom.
Indeed, children’s books are more than just play. They send powerful messages that both reflect and mold society. Two years ago, my students at a local college – Orthodox young women in their early 20s who were studying for a education degrees – were examining a popular Sukkot workbook that did not have even a single picture of a woman in it.
The book showed men building the sukkah, as well as purchasing the “four species” lulav and etrog, exchanging money and praying.
I asked my students about the message that only men handle affairs of ritual, synagogue, and money, and their responses astounded me. “But why would a woman want to handle a lulav?” one responded, completely dumfounded by my questions. “Or money?” asked another as the rest of the class laughed. I was speechless.
Actually, I found this whole conversation frightening. I also found it very hard to undo their perceptions. These young women, most of whom were already married and some of whom were mothers, had spent some 15 years in the religious educational system in Israel inundated with images such as these.
Even if a woman decides to practice the ritual of holding the four species, perhaps she should not make a blessing or even respond “amen” to a man’s blessing, they were taught, because a woman’s commitment, even when dutifully practiced, is not as significant or meaningful as that of a man.
Faced with the outcome of religious education among my students, I found trying to challenge the deeply embedded messages of gender difference daunting indeed.
In some homes, all Sukkot practices highlight gender differences. When space in the Sukkah is tight, women often stay inside – or worse, go back and forth serving. (My mother always says Sukkot is harder on her than Pesach, and I imagine that this is why.) Or, where part of a Sukkah is not “kosher” because it’s under shade, the women are given the “unkosher” spots.
Men buy their sons lulavs and etrogs. Last year, the salesman looked at my daughter and handed her an etrog – one that wasn’t kosher. How cute, he smiled, as if for girls fake is fine.
It’s an entire living reminder that men are doing life and women are watching or serving.
But the personal really is political, and the private is ultimately public. Last year, Sukkot became the focus of an escalated level of gender difference as signs around Jerusalem called for women to walk on the “other” side of the street. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this call came on Sukkot. The holiday is so laden with messages of separation that it’s almost a natural extension.
The message of Sukkot should be an equalizing one. We are all stuck in the huts, all equally exposed to the elements. Living in the desert, no one family had a bigger house, job, or paycheck and everyone relied on God’s generosity and compassion.
I’d like to bring back some of that equality. That’s why I sleep in the Sukkah with my kids. We should all breathe the same air and wake up with the same cricks in our backs. Now that, to me, is the Jewish way.