By Nechama Liss-Levinson
Growing up, the sukkah that I knew was part of our conservative synagogue in Jackson Heights, (Queens), NY. I loved the boughs of evergreen that covered the roof. I was smitten with the idea of seeing the stars through the spaces between the delicate fingers of the branches. I remember real fruit hanging, mainly garlands of cranberries that were carefully strung and that fell one by one to the ground, to be squished under our shoes.
I’m not sure I knew much as a youngster about inviting guests to the sukkah, whether actual guests to share a meal or virtual guests, with the custom known in Aramaic as Ushpizin. The Ushpizin prayers and accompanying posters in the early 1960s were all male heroes of the Bible. Their wives and a few other notable Biblical women joined them amidst the burgeoning Jewish feminist movement of the 1970s.
In my twenties, while away at graduate school, my husband and I began building our own sukkah, the first one using the classic design offered by The Jewish Catalogue. We treasured the joyous possibility of dwelling in the sukkah, inviting friends from the community. The symbolism of the fragility of human existence spoke to us, even in our youthful enthusiasm, and we aspired to the symbolism of moving away from material obsessions and possessions.
We began an addition to our Ushpizin ritual, asking guests to add whomever they would like to join us in our sukkah. Our sukkah was enlarged to include parents, siblings and friends. And perhaps there were parents or grandparents who were no longer alive, but whose presence would be imagined with great joy.
Friends began inviting famous people from the past or present with whom we would like to share a meal, like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And then people began to invite favorite authors, or perhaps their favorite characters from their books. These invitations expanded as our sukkah’s guests grew over the years.
And then this year, something new arose, something which deepened our understanding of the need to invite others who might need to be sheltered in our sukkah. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity awarded a grant to Jewish World Watch to raise awareness of the genocide of the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority in China who are subjected to desecration of their holy sites, incarceration, forced labor, torture and disappearances.
They asked the Uyghur Crisis Response Team at Adas Israel Congregation to create a new prayer to spotlight this issue, remembering our own slavery in Egypt as well as the more recent genocidal murder of our people.
We thought about all those who need a safe place to be and those in need of shelter – the unhoused, refugees fleeing their lands and those facing human rights abuses and genocide. We imagined the sukkah as a representation of the Divine Presence hovering over us, even in difficult times.
It was no longer possible to just rejoice in our bounty without both acknowledgement and action on behalf of those in need. We thought of the heroes for justice, as well as those in our neighborhoods, who are often alone or lonely.
With the artist Ronan Lynam and my team co-chair Karen Guberman, we created a prayer and a poster, that invites all those in need to the sukkah, including our Heroes for Justice.
Let us invite to this sukkah these heroes who inspire us, who teach us about the sanctity of each human life and who lead us on the path of righteousness.
Welcome, welcome holy guest _____________.
You lift us up, you teach us, you inspire us.
We then invite someone who is unable to be with us, whether activist or victim, ill or imprisoned, distant or deceased.
Welcome, welcome holy guest _____________________.
I wish with my whole heart that you could be here with us tonight. But circumstances have kept us apart, including the presence of illness, evil, imprisonment and death. May there be a time when we will all celebrate in joy, when children will be reunited with their parents and all people will be free.
This year, as I approach being in the sukkah, I retain my childhood wonder at the beauty and majesty of being in nature. But our work has helped us to develop a new understanding of who to put on our guest lists, both virtual and those sitting amongst us.
Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and activist. She is co-chair of the Uyghur Crisis Response Team at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.