Who’s in your sukkah? A personal list of ushpizin
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Who’s in your sukkah? A personal list of ushpizin

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. You can reach him at edmojace@gmail.com.

This Sukkot, spiritually speaking, whom are you inviting into your outback shack? The official crew of ushpizin, Aramaic for guests, such as King David or Moses? Or are you ready to add some newcomers?

Formal invites are not required. It can even be a spur of the moment thing. On the official honored guest list are a group of shepherds and wanderers: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David. More recently women guests, ushpizot, have been added by many: Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Rachael, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.

The tradition originates from a verse in the Zohar: “When a person is seated in his sukkah, Abraham and six distinguished visitors partake of his company.” The idea is that the spiritual power of the sukkah is so strong that, with an assist from a mystical incantation, we welcome the soul of each honored guest into our sukkah.

King David and Moses are among the biblical characters on the spiritual guest list for the sukkah. Keshigomu/Creative Commons

Then there’s the unofficial list.

For Sukkot, being the season of our joy, I am creating my own guest list, a sort of a personal off-off Zohar cast of ushpizin that will include Jewish men and women (of blessed memory) who have either had a great influence on my life, or who have intrigued my imagination in such a way that I want to learn more about them.

Besides, it’s that orange time of year again, when the stores fill up with Halloween rubber celebrity masks, grotesque horror film accoutrements and cat costumes for adults. I need some counter-programming.

My personal ushpizin:

Levi Strauss: During the California Goldrush, he invented denim pants with rivet reinforced pockets – blue jeans. Who has had more influence on what we wear than that? Ponder a world without them – would we even go out? Invited for the casual spirit I need in my sukkah. Perhaps he can reinforce it.

Marcus Illions: Russian woodcarver extraordinaire. He carved wonderful carousel horses and animals, opening a factory that employed other Russian woodcarvers. Together, they built carousels and amusements for Coney Island and other locations. He also created synagogue arks. Think of the delight and joy this man brought to children and adults. What season of joy what be complete without him?

Lillian Wald: A nurse, social worker, reformer, and tireless worker in Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements. I discovered her as a result of my wife’s Jewish social work studies. In 1893, Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement (still open), a home where immigrants, especially children, could find help and healthcare. Everything about her says chesed, loving-kindness.

Lipman Pike: “Lip Pike,” in the late 19th century, was one of the first professional baseball players, and the game’s first Jewish star. For his time, he was a power hitter. He also had speed and a great mustache. Why the invite? For a connection to that other October Jewish holiday – the World Series.

Emperor Norton (Joshua Abraham Norton): For just sheer craziness, you need to love this 19th-century San Franciscan. In 1859, he declared himself emperor of the United States and printed his own currency, which was accepted around town. Often wearing an old army uniform, complete with epaulettes and saber, he issued various decrees, including one to build a bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco.

Norbert Weiner: A mathematician who defined the term “cybernetics.” Working in robotics and automation, he proposed the idea of feedback. During World War II he designed systems to automatically track and fire at approaching aircraft, but later rejected an offer to work on the Manhattan Project. He asked scientists to consider the ethical implications of their work. The man to invite for a “sukkat shlomechah,” a sukkah of peace.

Molly Picon: Actress, singer, and dancer who brought Yiddish theatre and film to an American audience – first Jewish, then general. As I watched her famous film “Yidl Mitn Fiddle,” the story of a young girl who dresses as a boy so she can join her father in a klezmer band and travel through Poland, I too wished I could be in the band. Picon helped acclimate and connect a generation of Jews to America.

Nachshon ben Aminadav: Straight out of the Book of Exodus, he’s the guy in the midrash who when Moses says the Red Sea will part is the first one in the water, even before the sea splits. He was the initiator, the first. Maybe an ADHD guy that just couldn’t wait? Sometimes you just need to be the first one in.

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky): Remember that famous Dada sculpture of a clothes iron with nails sticking out? He’s the artist who created it, along with other Dada pieces. In a college film class, I saw his surrealist film “Emak Bakia” (“Leave me Alone”), and tried to make my own mini-version. Wow, did it not work. The invite is for his chutzpah and beyond.

Hannah Senesh: A Hungarian who in 1944, after training in Palestine, parachuted into Yugoslavia to help save the Jews of her homeland. She was captured, turned over to the Gestapo, tortured, and executed at age 23. Her writings include the famous song, “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”).

What better way to end this list of personal ushpizin than with this famous quote from Senesh’s writings: “There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living…. They light the way for mankind.”

JTA

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