I’ve been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, recently. My paternal grandmother’s mother was the little woman who, once widowed, sold the family business and land, and moved herself, her six children, and her two parents from Minsk (now Belarus) to Canada. Her husband had visited North America, but didn’t like it and decided not to move the family there. She prevailed despite his warning, determined to leave Tsarist Russia and make a better life for her family. What bravery! What determination! My grandmother adored her mother, Dina Zalev, and saw to it that I was named in her honour.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother because I am now an immigrant. Substantially easier for me than for her, I now know the stress of planning, the awkwardness of feeling out of place, and the heartache of longing that she must have known. I also know the rush of adventure, the thrill of accomplishment, and the joy of discovery, and I imagine she felt those, too. We crossed different oceans, Dina and I, 100 years apart, but we share more than just a name.
I think about all my forbearers as Sukkot approaches. Huddled in our flimsy huts, Jews invite our ancestors to join us inside. Biblical characters traditionally take the seats of honour, bringing with them their noble qualities. But I like to think of my grandparents and great-grandparents, less illustrious that King David but no less exemplary to me. When I welcome them into my sukkah, I’ll think of Dina’s bravery, her daughter Claire’s smarts, and my Poppy’s tenderness. I’ll think of Rosalie’s joie-de-vivre, and Ted’s sacrifice. I’ll invite each of them into my sukkah, and each of these admirable traits into my life.
We’re taught that we build sukkot for two reasons: because our ancestors lived in temporary booths as they wandered through the Sinai from Egypt, and because they remind us of the fragility of life. My own forbearers link me to these two traditions—some of them traveled, making their ways from persecution to liberty, and all of them lived and loved as fully as I do now, but are no more. Under the flimsy canopy of the sukkah, I remember that all my efforts, all my struggles are only temporary. As Kohelet writes in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “everything vanishes.”
I thought especially about my forbearers on Saturday, September 13. That night, our senior students presented their family trees in an excellent programme called “We Are The One.” Beth Shalom’s families come from every corner of the world, and our stories are Jewish history itself. Each student picked one particularly compelling ancestor and told us about him or her. I felt as if I had really met them! The night was both great fun and moving, and the students did an outstanding job. Special thanks are due to Ilan Wittenberg, Viv Josephs, Carmit Aharon and Claire Bruell who taught the seniors about genealogical research, and to all the parents and grandparents who sat for interviews. If I were a senior, I would have presented my great-grandmother, Dina.
I think sometimes about the home I left in Los Angeles. With August over, the oppressive heat is beginning to break, and some days will be cool and sweet. They feel like promises of something good. In L.A., the sun sets over the Pacific, and the sky turns every shade of brilliant. Near our tiny apartment, with no space to build a sukkah, the lights of the giant Pacific Design Center glow when evening falls, giant hoops of red and green and blue. It’s certain my neighbourhood has rearranged itself slightly, even in the three months I’ve been gone. The mix of cars on my street will have changed, and there will be new posters up in the store windows. No doubt some shop where I shopped has closed its doors; I cannot know whether something new has taken its place or the storefront remains vacant. I think about the people there, the ones I passed on the street all the time but didn’t know. And I wonder…have they noticed I’m gone? As we move through this world, all our homes are temporary.
Each year, I ask myself whom from all of history I’d most like to dine with in my sukkah.
This year, I’ll have plenty of space to build one. My house has a deck and back yard, and in the morning the scent of orange blossoms is so sweet it almost makes me cry. The lights of the Sky Tower glow in the distance when evening falls. This year, I’ll especially invite Dina Zalev, determined, capable, visionary. I have so much to ask her.
Who will you invite into yours?