Entry 5

My first puzzling view of the sukkah, greens on top
My first puzzling view of the sukkah, greens on top

From the window of the First Avenue bus, going home Wednesday evening, I looked left and saw something unusual in Ralph Bunche Park. It was a structure about 20 feet square, made of corrugated plastic sheets, with green boughs on the roof.

“What in the name of God?” I said to myself. It was an exclamation that turned out to be quite appropriate.

My yoga teacher Guta (one private lesson Wednesdays—extravagant, but keeps me able to swing my legs over fences) has a boyfriend who teaches at Yeshiva. So when I told her about the strange fort in Ralph Bunche Park, she told me about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Part of the holiday is the sukkah, a little building put up as a reminder of the tents in which the Jewish people lived during their 40 years in the desert.

How handy that my older son, in an effort to increase his (non-observant) Catholic mother’s knowledge of his (non-observant) Jewish father’s heritage, gave me Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things To Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. (“To Mom, Christmas 1993. Much endearment, Jacob.”)

“The walls are normally made of wood or canvas,” Rabbi Telushkin writes, “and the whole structure is covered by sekhakh, a covering that must be made of material that grows in the ground and has been detached from it.”

Betty Prior's view of the United Nations
Betty Prior’s view of the United Nations

Italics very much mine. I feared that when I returned to Ralph Bunche the next day, I’d find material detached from the ground of the park on the roof of the sukkah. Shrub rose Gertrude Jekyll and floribunda Betty Prior, which were planted nearby, might have been swept up into a religious observance they hadn’t bargained for.

Through the year, Ralph Bunche Park, which is across from the United Nations, draws demonstrations of one sort or another. The anti-Castro Cubans are there every few months. Recently there have been protests against the war in Iraq. (I once heard an excited guy in just the same kind of army-green jacket protesters wore in 1970, yelling into his cell phone: “Gotta go, sweetie. I’m going to be on CNN.”) The Burmese were very polite and neatly gathered up all their water bottles. An Ethiopian organizer, I’m sorry to say, was pretty rude. “We have a permit,” he told me, “and you can’t come in.” I went in at the other end of the park. So when I first saw the sukkah from the bus, one of the walls was caving in, and I thought it might be intended as a reminder of Palestinian houses pushed down by Israeli tanks. 

The sukkah was still standing when I went back the next day. According to Rabbi Telushkin, it stays up for eight days and “in Jerusalem the municipality annually conducts a contest to find the most beautiful sukkah in the city.” Even though the walls of this sukkah had been fixed overnight, it would not have been in the running. But I was relieved to see that the greenery on the top turned out to be cedar boughs, from ground somewhere else.

The first young man who arrived to open the sukkah, in severe black suit and black hat, couldn’t answer my queries. He was Israeli, he didn’t speak English well, and he struggled to explain. He did try out his one crystal-clear sentence in English on me, though:

“Are you Jewish?”

I remembered that Lubavitch Jews are known for the Mitzvahmobile. Men in Hasidic garb ask passersby, “Are you Jewish?” and invite Jews to come in and pray.

Three older men arrived late in the afternoon, sat down inside, and could tell me about the 40 years in the desert.

“Are you Jewish?” one of them asked.

Why here? Why across from the United Nations?

“Because there are many Jews there,” the oldest of the three replied.

Across the street at that moment, the U.N. Security Council was passing a resolution saying that it’s OK for the United States to keep running Iraq for a while.

Of course, there’s a litter angle, even in global politics.

When President Bush spoke at the United Nations at the end of September, security people removed all the trash baskets in Ralph Bunche Park. They weren’t replaced until early this week. Not to speak ill of the NYPD, who were around to protect the president, but after the speech there were many pink and orange Dunkin’ Donuts cups to pick up. During the receptacle-free days, people tossed cigarette packs, paper bags, napkins, and straws into the flower beds behind the benches.

I left the Lubavitch men, cleared up some junk, pulled up faded summer annuals, and began to plant bulbs for one of my favorite tulip combinations. It’s Menton (apricot-pink), Maureen (creamy white), and Queen of Night (almost black). (I wish they called it Queen of the Night—the correct name for the enraged female character in the custody dispute in The Magic Flute.) With sun shining through it, the flower is the dark purple of a Mourning Cloak butterfly’s wing.

The major feature of the eighth day of the holiday, this Saturday, is the recitation of the prayer for rain. If I read Rabbi Telushkin correctly it’s a prayer for rain in Israel.

I’d prefer a rain-free Saturday in New York City. It’s the citywide “It’s My Park!” Day. A volunteer group is coming from the Fashion Institute of Technology to plant daffodils and purple tulips at Bellevue. Have told them not to wear good shoes.