The Englishman John Keats wrote a beautiful poem, To Autumn, in 1820:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
I don’t know whether it was before the dreaded “climate change” or that he was experiencing what the Americans call an “Indian summer”. Either way, it was not my experience of autumn in the UK.
Every Sukot I remember, whether it was in the Oxfordshire countryside, the suburbs of Glasgow, or the ghetto of North London, we built a sukah in order to adhere to the Biblical command “For seven days you should live in temporary homes.” But the UK climate, ladies and gentlemen, is known for its damp and wet autumns. Here is an extract from one of my favorite English songs, by Flanders and Swann, which puts Keats in the shade (or rather the wet):
Bleak September’s mist and mud
is enough to chill the blood
Then October adds a gale,
wind and slush and sleet and hail
Dark November brings the fog,
should not do it to a dog
Freezing wet December, then…
Bloody January again
So we knew, as certain as the queen turned up at Ascot every year in June, that Sukot time would be like Flanders’ and Swann’s description of August, “cold and dank and wet, brings more rain than any yet”. The rain turned fallen leaves into mulch. Mushrooms sprouted everywhere. Grass was sodden underfoot and morning mists enveloped our Thames-side estate. Only rarely did a crisp, weak-sunned autumn day allow an invigorating tramp through the beech woods or a hike along Grim’s Dyke.
In my youth, no one had heard of automatic electronically retractable roofs that were activated by sensors at the drop of a drip. Or their more modest middleclass plastic sheet covered frames that were operated by pulleys that invariably jammed halfway. Or the really modest plastic sheeting you just throw over and hoped. We knew the law that said that as soon as the rain spoiled your soup you could leave the sukah and go eat indoors, and that is what we invariably did.
Our beautifully decorated sukot would, within a day, sport waterlogged decorations, sagging portraits of holy men, and sodden vistas of Jerusalem, not to mention wasps in the fruit and slugs on the ground. No one ever mentioned the fact that one was supposed to sleep in the sukah, of course.
It was only as sixteen-year-old in Jerusalem that I experienced a different Sukot. There it was dry and hot; the chamseen blowing in from the desert parched your throat and stung your eyes. We slept in the yeshivah’s sukah, but our reward for piety was being bitten all over by mosquitoes. No matter what we pulled over our heads and bodies, they dive-bombed us like World War II Spitfires strafing and whining in around our heads so that sleep became impossible. But there was no law about being able to leave the sukah because of Messerschmitt mosquitoes.
And now I am in New York, 30 stories high and no balcony. There’s a beautiful ornate sukah inside the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that is an indoor wood paneled room decorated with pine fronds and a lovely schach roof (under a retractable cover) that reminds one of a Rembrandt painting of old Amsterdam. But there are no beds. Or there’s a rather modest, functional, ground-level sukah at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where only a fool would sleep after the security patrol leaves the area at midnight. I have tried a collapsible in Central Park, but the police advised me to move for my own safety.
I wonder what Moses would make of our modern way of life. Would he revise the original instructions to take Alaska into consideration? Or would he just tell us to stop being so fussy and remember the spirit, the idea that there is a world beyond our electronically operated, centrally heated, air conditioned, burglar alarmed, optically cabled, wired houses. We are all ecologically tuned into to Mother Nature and climate control nowadays. Indeed, things have turned full circle in some respects and we are back on Moses’s very same wavelength about proximity to the spirit of the universe and God. It is just that we do it OUR way. Our return to the wild, our nature treks and camping holidays don’t usually coincide with Sukot anymore.