Let me tell you about my Brazilian song. I heard many songs in Brazil, surely the most musical of all countries. The power of dance and music shapes few worlds so forcefully as Brazil’s. I heard a song for Sukkot in Brazil. Let me tell you about it. It is a song of the shacks in the slums that is to say, the (Jewish) sukkot of the (Brazilian) favellas, and it asks: Who is rich, and who is poor, and where is the sky after all?
The writer compares slums in S?o Paulo, Brazil to the sukkahs built by Jews. PHOTO’00;by Jos? Carlos Pires Pereira
In the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro precariously perch vast slums, each made up of thousands of sukkot, that is to say, flimsy shacks in which people live. How many? Upwards of three million, I was told.
In the valleys below live middle class and rich people, where (just as in Johannesburg, in the Republic of South Africa) modest families employ only two or three servants (at $40 a month), rich ones, many more. The impoverished people descend from their hilltop fortresses, work if they can, steal if they have to (having left my arm out the window, my watch with my warm attached was nearly ripped off as I sat in a traffic jam on a busy highway). Then they scramble up to the favella and return, each family to its sukkah.
The favellas with their sukkah-shacks are ungovernable. The government cannot deliver services to them, the police cannot reach into them. So what do the officials do? To reach the people, they organize what they call "samba-schools," which teach not only the national dance of the country but also music and instruments.
And the people come. They will not come for food, but they will come for music. And through dance and music the state can reach and try to serve the vast population that lives in the clouds, beyond all earthly grasp.
Now what do these shacks in the clouds, filled with starving people ready always for a song and a dance, have to do with the shacks we call sukkot, and with our celebration of our festival of rejoicing?
My wife, the artist, is the one who came up with with the word "sukkah" for the housing in the favellas, and it struck home. For the favellas, the slums, as her inner eye perceived them, look like, are made up of, shacks, that is to say, sukkot. There people live not as an act of sanctification, in the way that we do because, at this season of the full moon of Tishri, we are commanded to do so, but because they have to.
And that set me to thinking.
On Sukkot we are commanded to be poor, to re-enter that world in which vast populations on this planet live because of a different commandment, one of necessity, in sight of the stars and without a roof. For us it is cold and refreshing; for them, it is always cold.
For us it is an act of consecration to re-enter the world of the flimsy shack, without water, without heat, with only God to sustain us. For them, it is a world of bitter necessity. But in Rio they can sing and dance: Their souls still respond to music and artful gesture. Give me shoes, and they will wear out. But give me a song, and I will always have it to warm my heart.
Sukkot gives us that taste of poverty that reminds us of the here and the now, not only of long ago or of distant days ahead. It is good for us Jews, most of us living in comfort, to be made to remember poverty, which most of our grandparents suffered, to be made to experience need. But not need alone: also the power of song and dance (for at the end of Sukkot, on Simchat Torah, our rite has us dance with the Torah!) too.
Sukkot makes us into street-people. On Sukkot we leave our homes and take up residence, if only for meals, in the Jewish favella: the neighborhood made up of sukkot. We live in shacks for a week. In our mind’s eye, so the Torah teaches, these are heavenly dwellings. With us in the sukkah, after all, are the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. There we sing for them, with them.
To live in a circumstance of poverty and to sing: that is Sukkot, the Jewish reminder that most people in most places do not have roofs, but see the stars by night because they have to. Sukkot reminds us, in our wealth, that we have souls, and that our souls sustain us.
That is why, when I raised my eyes upwards, riding along the gloriously beautiful streets of Rio and looking at the mountains on high, I thought of Sukkot.
That and one more thing.
I learned from the great rabbi, Rabbino Henry I. Sobel, of the Congrega??o Israelita Paulista in S?o Paulo, what really counts in thinking about the Jewish world.
At a dinner he and I attended for Israeli Minister of Education and Culture Yitzhak Navon in S?o Paulo, we sat with some impatience through a long discussion about the Jewish future, in Brazil, the United States, Argentina, and of course the State of Israel. Navon, a person of substance and intellect, catalogued all the reasons American Jewry is going to fade away, all the more so Brazilian and the rest of the Latin American Jewries, whether small, as in Bogota or Lima, or great and thriving, as in Buenos Aires, Rio, and S?o Paulo: intermarriage, low levels of Jewish literacy, declining standards of ritual observance indicators of change transformed into harbingers of doom.
Then Rabbi Sobel remarked, "Mr. Navon, people focus on the future. But what concerns me is the present."
He proceeded to explain: "Everyone is always talking about what is going to happen. But I am worried about today. If there is no today, then what difference does tomorrow make?"
With these eloquent words, he set forth the simple fact that, in his view, the life of Jewry even now is vacant and purposeless, lacking any sense of the richness of life and the gift of fellowship framed by Jews in association with Jews and so forming, in the here and the now, Israel in their particular place.
The head of the Confederation of Brazilian Jews, a lawyer of real probity, joined in: "We are opportunists, here to make money and keep to ourselves."
Rabbi Sobel said, "We are afraid to participate in public life, to address public concerns, to help solve the problems of this country, and when Jews do engage in public affairs, they are marginalized by the Jewish community."
I cannot judge the facts, though they made me think of home; I know others differed from the leaders’ assessment. But once again I wondered: Who lives in the sukkah? And who lives in the mansion? And who lives by song and dance?
In the hills above Rio are people starving, but with music and dance in their lives to sustain them.
In the luxury apartments down below are people eating enormous meals, served by two, three, five maids and butlers, who worry for the future, but who should ask whether, after all, there is any present in the here and now.
That is the message of Sukkot: We are all street people. But of different kinds. For living without food and the shelter of roof is one sort of privation, and living without song and the dance that stand for the heart and the soul that is another sort of privation. And it is the kind of poverty of soul that, in my view, we suffer.
So much for Sukkot, when we move into the Jewish favella, the slum made up of shacks, to become street-people and undergo poverty. But the poverty we suffer is within: that I owe my dear friend and rabbi, Henry I. Sobel.