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Sukkot in Spanish Harlem

Sukkot in Spanish Harlem

That night in the sukkah, I learned a painful lesson about complacency and security.

by

People who know me know that I grew up in an apartment building in Manhattan, on 105th street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.

I enjoy telling people that because of the reaction it usually elicits.

"Spanish Harlem? You grew up in Spanish Harlem?"

"Man, that's a rough neighborhood. Did you get beat up often?"

"Nah, you must mean West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, right?"

I sort of wear my roots like a badge of courage or a medal of martyrdom, shocking people with the notion of a scrawny, Brillo-haired, yarmulke-clad kid living in the 'jungle' with inner city delinquents and rabid Jew-haters. Those familiar with the neighborhood, then and now, typically conjure up visions of daily, if not hourly altercations with ex or soon-to-be convicts, leaving the poor 'Jew-boy' lying bloodied on the pavement, barely breathing. Kind of like the ultimate "Survivor" episode, with me being eliminated every day.

Not quite.

I do enjoy the shock value and accompanying commiseration/admiration that invariably follows, but my childhood memories are totally devoid of these dramatic battles. Quite the contrary, I walked to Yeshiva every day, skipping to the thumping bass sounds of Tito Puente blaring from the fire escape transistor radios. I bought my Drake's Devil Dogs and Fanta Orange soda from Felipe at the bodega next door. And I spent after-school hours in front of my building playing stoop ball, skelley, and stickball with my best friend Osvaldo Garcia and the rest of the gang. I was not exactly roughing it.

By and large life was peaceful for the Jews on the upper Upper West Side in the early 60's.

Oh occasionally I'd hear a disparaging epithet hurled from a passing Pontiac, but by and large life was peaceful for the Jews on the upper Upper West Side in the early 60's. Provocations and hostilities were noticably absent. We did our homework, loved the Kennedy's, watched Ed Sullivan and My Little Margie, knew the cop on the beat by his first name, and basically minded our own business.

Among the other fond memories I treasure, is the annual Sukkot experience we enjoyed. We were just a handful of observant Jews among the 60 families, mostly Cuban, in 120 West 105th Street, but we relished the opportunity to build and decorate the sukkah which was neatly nestled in a corner of the concrete yard that framed the rear of the six-floored structure.

As best as I can remember, Uncle Leo was in charge.

To this nine-year-old, Uncle Leo seemed like a Jewish combination of Bruno Sammartino and Killer Kowalski. And when he schlepped the dozen or so solid pine panels for the sukkah walls (he wouldn't let anyone help him), I marveled at his strength. It was a good couple of years later that I discovered that Uncle Leo was probably only a domino or two taller than 5'6", but to me he was a giant. Adding to his machismo no doubt was the imposing black holster that draped his left shoulder; exposed when he lifted the weighty wood. (He worked as a diamond dealer.) Somehow the bulky revolver within it didn't frighten me. I'm not sure why.

Of course, the rest of the sukkah crew pitched in as well. Some helped with the construction, led by Juan, the Puerto Rican superintendent; others brought the tables and chairs. The placement of the schach, (roof) -- consisting of many heavy, cut, leafy branches from Central Park (in the pre-bamboo era) -- required the muscle of several able-bodied youngsters. I just pretended to help and protested a bit too much about being over-worked. I guess life was just innocent and uncomplicated.

Meanwhile, in fourth grade, just a few blocks away, I dutifully (sic) studied Torah, social studies etc, and learned about the laws and meaning of Sukkot.

 

"It is true that we build sukkahs to commemorate how the Jewish People lived in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt," instructed Rabbi Newmark. "But Sukkot is much more than that."

 

My little ears perked up a bit.

 

"The whole point of moving into a shaky hut, with a rickety roof, is to remind us that our safety and security doesn't really come from bricks and concrete -- four walls and a firm roof -- it really comes from the Almighty."

 

I wasn't quite sure what security meant, but I think I got the point… somewhat.

That year was just like every other. The sukkah stood tall, the leafy branches were in place and the decorations hung neatly. Sukkot was here once again and the unassuming immigrants of 105th street, most of them Holocaust survivors, proudly led their small families into the frail, but holy shelter. My excitement was boundless. Outside, the enormous moon seemed almost happy that the Festival of Joy had finally arrived.

Inside, an air of formality prevailed. It always started out that way. Even though we were all relatives and good neighbors, there was something about eating all together and displaying our simple utensils, wardrobes and foodstuffs in public, that created a fragment of apprehension. But that faded quickly. The scene was comfortably familiar. Mommy opened the plaid thermal bag with the not so hot chicken soup and wondered aloud where the heat went. Daddy sang the usual melodies -- some upbeat, some maudlin. Cousin Willy assumed his customary rank as Captain Mischief. And my brother and I kind of sat quietly -- soaking up the scene.

I don't remember exactly when it happened. I just know it was swift, sudden, and unforgettable.

I don't remember exactly when it happened. I just know it was swift, sudden, and unforgettable.

The meal was nearing its end. The conversation was ordinary and the spirited strains of selected holiday tunes were fading into the cool night. The white tablecloths, once glimmering, were now sullied with assorted remains of horseradish, grape juice, challah crusts, and half sour pickle ends. The happy moon shined softly through the breaks in the flimsy roof branches.

And then it hit. Out of nowhere, a boulder, flying faster than a comet, came hurtling through the sukkah roof! Beams cracked. Splinters flew. Glass from plates and bulbs exploded in the air. Darkness fell over us. And the horrified shrieks of panic frightened me. The crash had shattered everything in sight -- especially the serenity we loved so. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

The shock was incredible. Some cried, some breathed heavily, some held their heads and eyes. The 15 or so of us, all kind of froze in place. The only one I remember moving was Uncle Leo. Like a blur, he rumbled past me out the sukkah door. I remember seeing the holster under his suit jacket, as he bolted out of the wreckage.

Trembling from fear, I held onto Mommy. The entire incident had lasted just a second or two, but I knew the impact would be felt forever. I stared at the broken folding table and fixed my tear-filled eyes on the huge rock that lay beside it. It was bigger than a football and probably weighed 20 - 30 pounds. Had it hit someone, God forbid (like me), it could have killed him. It was a scene I shall never forget.

It was some time later, perhaps days, that I thought back to what Rabbi Newmark had taught us:

 

"The whole point of moving into a shaky hut, with a rickety roof, is to remind us that our safety and security doesn't really come from bricks and concrete -- four walls and a firm roof -- it really comes from the Almighty."

 

It was a concept that we nine-year-olds had difficulty understanding -- especially when every day life seemed so serene and tranquil. But that night in the sukkah, I learned a painful lesson. I learned to expect the unexpected. Having friendly neighbors, police officers, and friends is a wonderful thing. Living in a big, strong, apartment complex can make you feel safe. But true security comes only from God.

We go through life believing that a concrete roof, a 401K, a car alarm, a security fence, or a PhD. will be our eternal guarantee for safety and success.

It is a concept that all of us need to remember. We go through life believing that a concrete roof, a 401K, a car alarm, a security fence, or a PhD. will be our eternal guarantee for safety and success. And those are all valuable strategies to pursue. But we forget, or prefer to forget that we are not really the true determinants of our ultimate destiny. We get lulled into complacency, like me when I was nine years old.

It is a tender memory that still haunts me, but every year now, when I build my own sukkah, I am at peace. I know that whatever I do, I am but a small star in a much larger constellation. It is the Almighty who dictates our destiny.

I sit in my sukkah and still catch a glimpse of the big, friendly moon above. I smile and teach my children, the youngest who is ten, that sometimes we will understand His ways; other times we will be bewildered. But Sukkot is about surrendering our delusions of grandeur and placing our trust in Him.

Somehow, that feels good.

Published: September 25, 2004


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Visitor Comments: 35

(35) Elizabeth, October 12, 2011 8:31 PM

Sukkot Meaning

I appreciate the beauty and meaning you took from the Rabbi's lesson. This incident was unfortunate, but serves to remind us that help comes from G-d alone. Thank you for your story, it helped add a lot of meaning to Sukkot for me this new year.

(34) Anonymous, September 20, 2010 9:16 PM

Nice story but not Spanish Harlem

Inspiring story but.....My grandparents lived on W. 95th St. off Amsterdam Ave. My Grandfather's sukkah in the yard also got things (not a boulder) airmailed into it. The neighborhood Rav Salomon describes is the Upper West Side just south of Manhattan Valley. It's always been Latino but It is not Spanish Harlem which is on the east side.

(33) Anonymous, September 20, 2010 2:09 AM

wrong neighborhood

i was born (1st generation) in Manhattan, lower east side, lived there till got married (62) moved to jersey in 68 but worked in manhattan and some other boroughs in sales from 60-95.......spanish harlem was part of my territory....however....105th st on west side was/is considered harlem......105 st and environs on EAST SIDE is the area known as spanish harlem as far as i know...even the museum of EL BARRIO is on 5th ave on the EAST side of the park (central)...great albeit terrifying story.IG

(32) ruth housman, September 19, 2010 10:04 PM

Rock of Ages

There is a comment I would make about all of our stories, and that is, as in the rules of Biblical exegis, or interpretation of story, this is applicable, namely PARDES. In reading and re reading this profound story, about the rock thrown into the Sukka, that could have maimed or killed any of the participants, there are deepening levels of understanding of story, in peeling away at the layers for meaning. Yes, it was a deep lesson in safety. Yes, it was a miracle, a Sukkot miracle, and Sukkot is a beautiful time of year and the sukka about what nourishes, what succors in fact, us all. The widening astonishment of this story might be at a more profound level to ask, who made that rock, who made that person throw the rock into the sukka, for this entire story to happen. For this I think about God, because it seems that all things come from a Divine Source. To go to this place, is to take a step deep, deep, into something truly profound, and perhaps, hidden, and even perhaps, forbidden territory, Because we all do have difficulty going to that place. I say, this entire story, the greater, a most cosmic story, is about LOVE.

(31) kim, September 19, 2010 6:33 PM

Sukkot in Spanish Harlem

I have learned from the Jews how HOLY G-d is as well. One thing for sure is they do put their trust in G-d alone and all of us who don't , just don't realize HE IS ALL IN ALL. thank you for this precious article I never tire of learning ..

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