Succot, which starts Wednesday night, is the holiday in which Jews are literally commanded to be happy, to rejoice. I have, unfortunately, not gotten off to such an auspicious start.
The two major mitzvot of Succot are to build a succah, a little makeshift outdoor hut in which one eats one’s meals, and lulav. A lulav is made of palm, myrtle and willow leaves bound together, and you hold it together with an etrog, which is called a “citron” in English–it looks a bit like a lemon.
Together the lulav parts and the etrog are called the “four species.” You take the two things together and shake them in 6 directions (front/back/side/side/up/down) during certain parts of the prayer service. It’s wonderful and delightfully pagan, on my very short list of favorite holiday activities. Both mitzvot–succah and lulav–are extremely intricate and gear-intensive, so in a number of places around Jerusalem there are these little Succot markets that spring up to sell the four species.
They also sell parts for making a succah, adorable harvesty things with which to decorate the succah (like fake grapes and pomegranates) “succah lights” that look suspiciously like strings of lights that decorate something else on somebody else’s holiday, and posters for the inside of the succah that run the full gamut of classy to superkitsch, (as does everything around here.)
This evening I was out walking around with a friend, and I saw a guy carrying a newly-purchased lulav, so I asked him where he got it–I’d been meaning to get my lulav and etrog, and if there was someplace to do so nearby, I figured that would be nice. He said that the big four species market was up on Strauss. I thought, ooh, cool. I could go someplace in my neighborhood, but all the better to go to the big one, since this is my first Succot in Jerusalem. You know, check out the serious action.
So I started walking up Strauss, realizing somewhere along the way that the neighborhood was getting frummer and frummer (more and more religious). Good thing I happened to be dressed like a nice Jewish girl today–seriously, denim skirt, yoga pants underneath, t-shirt, bandanna on head. At some point I stop and don my sweatshirt so that my elbows are covered, too.
I keep walking up, and eventually see the beginning of the succah mart, which stretches on the length of about a block, and has a sort of makeshift cover over the top of it and on the sides. From the front, I could see that mart itself was crammed with people and lulav parts, crates of etrogim. A lot of people looking very carefully at branches and fruit skin to determine their level of kosher-ness and quality (there are all sorts of rules and requirements for having kosher lulavim and etrogim, and if something’s fuzzy or bent or whatever, it can’t be used.) I’m thrilled; this looks like a great party for a Torah geek such as myself.
I get in line and offer my bag to the security guys at the gate to inspect (par for the course in these parts). The guy says something to me, I don’t quite catch his drift. His Hebrew’s fast, I’m a bit spacey.
“You don’t want to see my bag?” I ask.
“No, no. You can’t come in. Women cannot enter.”
“I can’t come in?” (I’m a quick one, you see.)
“No. Women can go over there,” he points to what appears to be the other side of the gate.
Oh! There’s a mechitza entrance sort of thing. Weird, but OK.
It’s not a mechitza. The entrance leads nowhere–it’s just an alleyway on the outside of the succah mart. I peek inside: yep, in fact, it’s just men in there.
This might be a salient time to address the fact that, traditionally, only men are obligated to the mitzvah of lulav. That women are not obligated, however, does not mean that they are forbidden to also perform it–in fact, many important poskim (legal interpreters) and codes of Jewish law have affirmed that women may, in fact, perform the mitzvah without problem. Of course, in this part of town, women would not do such a thing. Here, lulav is a mitzvah for men, period.
As my then-present situation could attest. Standing outside the little tent, I was feeling pretty cranky. I mean, I was just wanting to go in to buy a thing so that I could serve God, after all. It’s not like I had any intent to engage in mixed dancing over the myrtle table, or to use the willows to make an indecent proposal. It still shocks me that I wasn’t even permitted into the space where they sold the stuff. Basic commercial transactions, you know?
I trudge up the street to see if there are any clever posters I might want to get–I don’t have space in my building to build a succah this year, but I will next year, and it would be wonderful to have the one that illustrates all the weird (kosher and not) succot described in the Mishnah–Succah on the deck of a ship! Succah on top of a camel’s back!
(See, I don’t just make this stuff up.)
I don’t see any fabulous posters, but it turns out there are other guys selling four species, so I go up to one of them and start inspecting myrtle branches.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I need to buy a lulav.”
Oh, man. I knew this was coming. I’d prepared myself for these sorts of questions, and it was still horrible to have to face it in real life. I know that if I say “yes,” I will have to face one or more of several possible outcomes. a) I will inevitably find myself arguing halakha with this guy and a lot of the guys around him–and though I know the halakha both regarding women and lulav and the general halakha of women in the category of Positive Time-Bound Mitzvot, into which lulav falls, I can’t quote lulav halakha chapter and verse, which means I won’t be able to hold my own against the professional yeshivaniks, and b) I’m not quite sure what would happen if they were faced with a 5’3″ female who asserted that she was intending to do what they considered to be “desecrating the holiness of their tradition” or some variant therein–even if the answer is “probably nothing,” it seems clear that this is not the time for bravado, this is the time for passing. And c) I’m pretty sure nobody would be willing to sell them to me if they thought I’d actually use them.
“No, not for me,” I say. He looks at me. He does not buy it. Oy. I really am gonna have to elaborate.
“For my husband,” I say. I use the traditional word for husband–baal. Master.
At this moment, I really feel terrible. Both because I feel like I’ve had to fudge my integrity and also because I am hating the amount of tsuris I have to go through to fulfill a mitzvah. I play dumb a little, let him explain stuff to me, finally pay him some money and walk away with a lulav set and etrog that’ll keep me going through the holiday.
Of course, lulavim–particularly when encased in the handy-dandy carrying case I bought with it–are pretty large, unweildy and conspicuous. So now I’ve gone from being a chick attempting to buy a lulav to one who’s clearly already bought one. Not a short-term improvement. Assuming that my popularity in this neighborhood is about to expire, I skedaddle–but this requires walking past the men’s only
water fountain succah mart. As I do so, I see a guy in full Hasidic garb walking in, smoking a cigarette. The irony! This guy, the guy who finances tobacco corporations, gives himself cancer and poisons the rest of us in the process gets access to the holy leaves and I don’t? Ha-rumph.
Eventually I make it home and stick my fruit and leaves safely in the fridge, where they’ll live until called upon Thursday morning. And then, hopefully, I can engage in unadulterated practice of a Positive Time-Bound Mitzvah in a community of really, truly, like-minded Jews. That is to say: the ones who don’t smoke.