Two days ago I was eating lunch in my sukkah, enjoying a picture-perfect afternoon and catching up on some reading. I designed (with a good amount of help) the temporary structure to fit snugly on the rectangular footprint of grass that we in Baltimore city row-houses call a backyard. Midway through my meal, I heard some nearby neighbors laughing and joking with one another – and they were loud! After several minutes of this I began to tense-up, feeling increasingly frustrated that their boisterous frivolity was encroaching on my quiet Monday afternoon reading in my sukkah. I remembered my undergraduate days when I would seclude myself in the library stacks, escaping blaring television sets and radios to finish an assignment or just enjoy some peace and quiet with a book.
I thought of going indoors, out of my sukkah and away from the noise. And then I realized something: this is the whole point of Sukkot! Sukkot, in the Jewish imagination, is more than simply a harvest festival. It is an immersive experience that commemorates our ancestors’ journey through the wilderness. The sukkah is porous: to cold or warmth, rain, fragrances both delightful and unpleasant, and (yes) sounds both agreeable and distracting. These factors make a sukkah a sukkah. It is the embodiment of the ephemeral and the antithesis of our hermetically sealed cars and homes.
Sukkot in an urban neighborhood where, much like a college dorm, we live in close quarters, presents a number of challenges. Living in the country, away from people, things are quieter. The city is a place saturated with human and natural events. Living in the New Jewish Neighborhood might just mean getting beyond the “four cubits” of our own desires (as I needed to). How often do we simply take in the fact that our neighbors have conversations to enjoy and things to laugh about?