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The IKEA Sucah

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Once upon a time we were a rural, agricultural people. Our founding forebears left the corrupt big city world of Nimrod, Babylon and Ur and migrated to the Land of Canaan (via Kurdistan). There, for practical reasons, they went back to a nomadic tent life. Abraham’s nephew Lot couldn’t handle the camping life. He needed his gold-plated faucets, so he retired to Sodom. A few generations later, the migration down to Egypt brought the Israelite nomads back into contact with a sedentary, technologically advanced civilization. Eventually the lure of the wild proved too strong and they went back to camping for a generation. Yet we Jews are much more urban than rural, despite the valiant but futile attempts of the early Zionists to make us a nation of kibbutzniks.

You might wonder where this going. I suggest we humans constantly go through transitions–physical, intellectual, and cultural. Often these cycles are contradictory. When we spend too much time in the countryside we yearn for the city. Too long living in the city and we dream of the open, innocent world of the countryside (go and see Straw Dogs if you want to be cured of that). “Cars chasing bicycles” soon turns into “hounds chasing foxes” or “men with guns blasting little birds” for fun rather than necessity.

We go from knowing how to make a chair to buying one to paying an interior designer to find one in an antique store to commissioning an aristocratic craftsman to make one specially for us at an astonishing cost. And then we progress to IKEA and buy a kit we can assemble (or get an unemployed student to do it for us) before finally to taking up carpentry as a hobby in retirement or old age.

IKEA itself has gone through its own transformation from the brainchild of a Swedish Nazi to the darling of the Left-Wing anti-Israel intellectuals who claim to be free thinking but really just long to follow their own particular herd (and the Israeli middle classes). Hugo Boss now finally admits its Nazi past and has become the favored outfitter of those yeshiva bochurim from comfortable families eager to impress a possible shidduch with their sense of materialism and fashion. More exclusive than Marks and Spencer (Brooks Brothers) but not as excessively ostentatious as Armani or Zegna. I have even noticed that very successful Charedi entrepreneurs love flashing a Hermes belt buckle through their fashionably open long black coats or flicking their wrists to show the latest metal chunk of a timepiece made by Swiss former-Hitler-sympathizers. What is it, I wonder, about ex-Nazi companies like Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen that they have in the space of sixty years gone from the enemies of civilization to the very definition of its materialist soul? What can better illustrate the inevitable cycle of human civilization? And of course the positive side of being excessively methodical, systematic, and single-minded at whatever it is one chooses to do?

It is precisely this transition and change I notice at Sucot time. Not just the arrival of autumn in the northern hemisphere and the touch and smell of nature’s plants. We used to have booths all over the place during the summer season to give our shepherds and watchmen shelter from the heat. We quickly changed the thatch and, bingo, we had our sucah ready for the festival. We moved into cities and had to erect our own huts on our roofs or balconies in makeshift fashion and often under duress. As we became more settled and wealthier we could get our local carpenter to come and do it for us. Then we graduated to purposely built home extensions. Yet we still yearned for something authentic and went back to constructing our own from local lumber yards.

This where the IKEA approach comes back, collapsible kits of aluminum frames, waterproofed fabric sides with special rainproof covers for the North European climates. But as our families grew bigger, with more unemployed teenage yeshiva bochurim on vacation with nothing better to do than roll up their shirt sleeves, we delegated the mitzvah to them and simply turned up on the evening to eat, drink, and be merry. The real spirit of do-it-yourself has returned.

The beauty of our tradition is its infinite flexibility and adaptability. No matter the era, the prevailing civilization, the current political situation, we adapt. If the Muslim Brotherhood cuts off the supplies of palm branches for lulavim and sucah roofs from Egypt, we find them from African and Asian sources instead. If Turkey blocks the material for sucah construction, China is always happy to offer what turns out to be a cheaper option.

Here we are, a modern people, celebrating something nearly three thousand years old. We who can adapt finance, technology, medicine, and all the aspects of modernity to survive, to make life livable, profitable, and fun, are still yearning for a primitive past, the call of the wild, of simplicity. I fact it is just a handy reality check. What values matter more than others? That’s why I love it. Pleasure with a touch of philosophy.

2 thoughts on “The IKEA Sucah

  1. Last winter I bought a Hugo boss coat. I bought in part because I won a voucher for Hugo Boss, but I really love the coat, and I have received lots of compliments on how stylish it is. I have also received quite a few comments, mostly from people a generation before me, along the lines of "Hugo Boss… you know what he did in the war, don't you?" I found these comments to be quite upsetting, as I knew nothing about Hugo Boss's Nazi past when I bought the coat, and I thought nothing of the name other than as a fashion label.

    However, it has not taken long for me to find the following information, quoted, in this case from a Telegraph.co.uk article published just three weeks ago:

    The company [Hugo Boss] said on its website it wished to "express its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule".
    After the war Boss was tried and fined for his involvement in Nazi structures.

    As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to have any more reservations about buying a Hugo Boss coat than I am about driving my VW car, or employing a Polish builder. What's done is done, and if I deny myself access to the best in consumer goods, who, really, will suffer from my decision?

    I was thinking about this in particular over Yom Kippur, when I read something that the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote. I'm going to quote him directly here, because he says it far more eloquently in full, than I can do in summary form:

    In the last month of his life, Moses gave the Israelites an
    unusual command. He said, “Do not hate an Egyptian for
    you were strangers in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). What
    did he mean? The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites and tried
    to kill every male child. Was that a reason not to hate them?
    Surely the opposite was the case.
    What Moses was doing was very profound. He was telling
    the next generation that if they continued to hate Egyptians,
    they would still be slaves – to the past, to resentment, to a
    sense of grievance. Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but he would not have taken Egypt out of the
    Israelites. He was stating one of the deepest truths of all: If
    you want to be free, you have to let go of hate.
    That is a message we must insist on at every opportunity.
    Antisemitism matters not because Jews are Jews but because
    Jews are human. You cannot deny someone else’s humanity
    without endangering your own.

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