Tuesday, August 30, 2011

must tradition always trump sustainability? and at what price?

This is the time of year when Jews around the world begin to Plan Ahead. We are entering the month of Elul tonight, the 30-day period when we do nothing but turn inward, examine ourselves, and then turn outward to make amends with those we may have harmed during the past year. We hope that we will have done the hard stuff by the time we approach Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), a month from now.

It's also the time we plan ahead to the holidays that immediately follow Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Specifically, this is the time when Jews who are planning to erect a sukkah (temporary dwelling) for the eight days of Sukkot begin to design their structures, replace worn or broken pieces of framework, and place their orders (usually through their synagogues) for Lulav and Etrog, the species with which we say the special blessings inside the sukkah. The lulav and etrog are flown in from Israel by the plane-load, thousands and thousands of them in boxed sets ranging from plain to elaborate, for sale to Jews all over Diaspora who will use them in their temporary structures -- their Sukkot (literally, "booths").

Someday when time, resources and storage space permit, Sweetie and I want to erect our own sukkah. (We don't have a garage or basement so storing the reuseable parts outdoors in our rainy climate is a real problem, one we haven't yet resolved.)

But the whole issue around the lulav disturbs me greatly. The idea of paying someone to fly a bunch of plant stalks and fruit over from halfway around the world sort of galls me. Especially when that stuff will dry up, and shrivel, and won't be of use again the following year. It really bugs me that so many aspects of trying to maintain Jewish life in Diaspora require sustaining a connection to Israel that feels neither truly connective nor sustainable.

So several years ago I hit upon an idea: Since I'm in Diaspora, why not use what's been given to me here? Why not ride my bike up to Forest Park and gather freshly-fallen branches of Oregon native species? Green fronds of Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, Oregon Grape and Western Red Cedar, combined with an aromatic cedar cone, would certainly make an acceptable -- and far more sustainable -- Northwest Native lulav.

No, it doesn't really say anything specific about a connection to Israel. But I already have issues about figuring out connection to a place I may never make it to. Plus, international air travel is insanely expensive and the carbon footprint is simply too great for me to ignore.
So I tend to think that simply erecting a sukkah in a not-so-very-Jewish place like Portland is connection enough to my Judaism and to the Jewish people, if not to Israel specifically. As for connecting to harvest, it would be fairly easy to substitute any of the natives for something like a single stalk of alfalfa or hard red wheat, both of which are being brought in from the high plains of eastern Oregon as I type this.

So far, every rabbi I've suggested this idea to has given it a big, fat, emphatic "no" vote. Few have been able to explain why, at least in terms I am able to relate to. But still, it's an idea in the back of my mind. Someday, if Sweetie and I are able to find a way to store the re-useable pieces of a sukkah frame, it's something I'll definitely look into. Sweetie thinks it would be okay to have it sit alongside an Israeli lulav; I think it would be acceptable to have it be a radical alternative to an Israeli lulav. (I tend to be more radical than she is in many things.)

And if we ever get around to building a sukkah, the arguments over the dinner table will be interesting, to say the least.

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