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Mendy.Esrog.Sukka
3 Oct 2017

Slums and Stones: A Favella and a Sukkah

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The Fragility of the Sukkah More Permanent than Steel

Mendy.Esrog.SukkaI landed in San Paulo, Brazil between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The shape of South America had intrigued me from grade-school and so too the curvaceous border of Brazil. Somehow, their voluptuous boundaries reminded me of Africa, the continent of my birth. Each had a hip flung out at their side. Waiting to pass through security, a woman sang on screens hung on all sides of the hall, gyrating like the land and tilting her shoulder at those of us standing in line. It wasn’t what I had expected but then, maybe that’s what the curves of the continent were serving up on the cusp of 2008. The room was cold and fluorescent, the video loud and hot. I liked neither.[/caption]

But on the other side of passport control, stood Nechama. She had come to pick me up and radiated authenticity and warmth. Our connection came easily. It always does in a way that never fails to strike me. Wherever I travel, I sit down with women I’ve never met and the intrinsic connection between our souls is palpable. You can’t buy that, the deep oneness of a sister-soul. I felt it with all the women I met in San Paulo. After lectures, we sat together in spontaneous farbrengens. When I wasn’t teaching, Alita took me to a resort where I soaked in a sulfur bath and drank coconut milk from the fruit, and Leny and friends took me to the market where we ate exotic fruit and took in the fragrances inside a “tent” of spices – a stall lined with pepper, zhatar, cumin, curry, cardamom and more from floor to ceiling and hanging overhead.

For now, Nechama and I were still on the way in to town. We talked and as we rode, I took in the smells and sounds and sights around me. San Paulo felt vibrant. “Seize the day” captures the mindset. I felt the pulse. It was there despite the fact that the river Tiete stank. Apparently much healthier than it had been a few years ago, but no longer needed for drinking water, it rots in neglect. The trucks belched smoke without shame and yet in some way each was an individual, in contrast to the Mack Trucks that box me in on the I-95 and Cross Bronx Expressway. The latter shine, don’t spew half the gas and glide with more grace. But they don’t cut the grade for spunk. Those Brazilian gigs have graffiti and hubcaps of different colors, they’re not as sharp, and they whiz along like eager teens. I liked the highway.

The Rabbi and the Favella

2011-10-17 13.22.42I liked it that is, until we passed the first favella. They’re given different names depending on the country that hosts them. Bustees in India, pueblos jovenes in Peru. Shanty towns if you want to odorize the concept. Slums if you call a spade a spade. The boards and sheets and plastic that formed the homes shimmied up against the highway slopes. I could see no alleyways. The makeshift shacks leaned upon one another like the towns of cards I built as a child. A woman turned in to a flap of a door. I felt at once the fullness of her being and the transience around her. So Africa and Brazil didn’t have only a hip in common. The favella reminded me of the shanty towns that sat at the outskirts of Johannesburg and of our collective guilt.

And what of my home, I thought? Fifth floor apartment, large building, solid foundation, ethnic pieces collected on my travels, funky bowl and slate blue couch? I was reminded of a Chassidic story. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov once directed one of his followers to the home of his most distinguished student, the sagacious mystic Rabbi DovBer of Mezritch. “Please give him my regards,” the Rebbe said. But upon arrival in town, no one knew of the illustrious “Rabbi DovBer”. The only suggestion offered was that he try the home of “Reb Ber”, an impoverished schoolteacher who lived in the makeshift homes piled up on the edge of town.

The chassid found himself gingerly following a narrow alley to the poorest section of Mezritch. The path was muddy; it stank of sewage and garbage. The dwellings were piled upon one another, leaning like a town of cards. A favela?

Inside, the visitor saw the radiant Rabbi DovBer teaching his students. The table was a rough plank on a trunk of wood and the chairs too were boards slapped down on blocks. The Rebbi turned to his visitor and asked if he could please return later in the day, once he had finished teaching. Upon his return, the chassid observed that the classroom furniture had been restructured as beds for the family members. A favela.

“I have brought you regards from our master,” said the visitor.

“Thank you. Thank you. Perhaps you would like to join us.”

The chassid looked around. He could not hold his pain.

“Rabbi! Forgive me. But how do you live this way? I myself am not wealthy but at least our home has the basic necessities of life. A table, chairs, beds, a normal oven…”

“Where then are these basic necessities? Where’s your bed, your table and chairs?”

“Rabbi DovBer, why would I have those with me? I am a traveler on a journey. At home I need those things, but not on the road.”

The Rebbi was silent. And then thoughtfully responded. “I too am a traveler. My life in this world is but a journey. Aren’t we all in perpetual motion, moving from one spiritual point to a loftier destination? When we reach our destination, then we need the furniture.”

What does Permanence Mean?

Mendy with EsrogNechama and I pass one slum after another. We’re travelers, I tell myself. And if so, what does permanence mean? Is a rock stronger than a leaf? Is steel permanent and cotton transient? Are our homes and towers of wood or stone and steel essentially different from the shacks of the impoverished? I don’t mean to imply that an upper-crust suburban neighborhood and the Pedra Sobre Pedra Settlement in San Paulo are the same in terms of human experience. My question is more about the existential, absolute nature of each place. The Twin Towers were amongst the tallest buildings in the world…And they stood for roughly three decades. My son Levi watched them burning from the roof of the school building. All that steel and stone smelted to ash, absorbed into the earth and the lungs of so many New Yorkers. Where the permanence?

In Crown Heights today, people are banging boards of their Sukkot into place, hanging their curtain walls. Soon, the streets will be fragrant with the scent of cedar leaves which will serve as roofs. It is all so fragile. But it is also permanent. More permanent than towers of steel! Alongside the fragility of the Sukkah walls, I think of the force of one made of iron. It is the Western Wall; the sole remaining wall of the Temple left standing after its destruction. The Temple appears to be no longer. And yet beyond the chunks of stones and artifacts that dot the Temple Mount, the Wall stands. She stands silently. She is silence. And yet, surprise, she is permanent! She has withstood the waves of cultures come and gone, she holds in her stones the quiet prayers of my sisters whispered to her over thousands of years, she seems anchored in the core of the earth. The Wall is no tower. But she is my touchstone. She holds the secret of permanence within her, hinting to me at what it means to be an absolute existence. “What makes your home eternal is neither cloth nor stone. The permanence of a home is rooted in the deeds you perform in it. It is anchored upon how connected your hearts and minds are to Jerusalem, to making of the wildness of the world a home for Gd.”

And in thinking of the Wall, I realize that so too are our fragile “Sukkahleh’s” eternal. They may flap when the wind gets gruff, they let the rain in, they’ll be folded up and put away, and yet they are as permanent as the Wall they remind us of. The Wall is silent. The Sukkah fragile. But both will stand through the night. Neither the Twin Towers nor a shanty town home, both touch eternity. Both call out to our souls, inviting us to come home, to transform and enter into the world as Gd intended it to be. And as I prepare to enter our Sukkahleh this year, I hold the favella and the towers in my mind. I ask that “the Merciful One rebuild the fallen Sukkah of David”[1] at which time, no person shall lack anything. We will all touch the eternity of our souls and Gd’s “house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”[2]

[1] Grace after meals said on the festival of Sukkot

[2] Isiah 56:7

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