Acquiring the palm fronds to cover the roof required similarly covert operations, involving a midnight visit to some overgrowth in a remote corner of the installation and a cover-story about a highly-specialized botanical-conservation mission. No such explanation was ever needed, which was fortunate since its credibility would have been strained by both the fact that the floral specimens themselves were little more than gigantic weeds, and that they were removed with all the sensitivity of conquistadors in the Yucatan. Once the exterior was complete, our tiny Jewish community finally celebrated the holiday with a festive sukkah-decorating party. We hung real fruit from the Dining Facilities, paper cut-outs of fruit with supportive messages written on them from synagogues back home, and glow sticks that our Safety Officer procured to make sure no one accidentally lost an eye to a low-hanging banana.
My efforts to educate both non-Jewish and Jewish soldiers about the holiday’s origins and message were generally successful but, as with the construction of the sukkah itself, reflected the unique challenges of Army life. One evening, as Engineer Congregant and I bedded down for a night in the sukkah, we received an unexpected visit from a military police officer who was out on patrol and had noticed the two of us lying in this strange, cabana-like structure, surrounded by hanging fruit and colored lights. “What are you guys doing in there?” he asked suspiciously. I eagerly launched into an exhaustive explanation, incorporating everything from history to theology, but neglecting one crucial piece of information. The MP was getting increasingly confused and impatient. Finally Engineer Congregant jumped in and summarized things with "Look, he's the Jewish chaplain." "Oh, ok," the MP said, and continued on his way. “Next time, try leading with that,” Engineer Congregant suggested.
At our first community service in the sukkah, I began my sermon with a lesson on its meaning. “We celebrate this holiday to appreciate the blessings in our lives that those who are less fortunate lack—like air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and delicious food,” my sermon began. “Can anyone tell me what this holiday is called?” “Um, every day of our deployment?” someone deadpanned. The group exploded in laughter. They’d been working in 130° heat and showering in trailers for months.
Just as certain ancient features of our religion make sense to those with experience in farming (whereas I can never seem to remember whether Sukkot originally celebrated the wheat or the barley harvest), other aspects are more easily grasped by those who live in the world of the military. A transient and uncertain existence is much closer to the life of a soldier than that of most civilians. Here the expectation of sacrifice, the discomfort of privation, the authority of command and the fragility of life are not theoretical concepts debated around a table at bible study, but rather basic facts accepted as part of everyday existence. I never did learn how to build a reliable sukkah on my own, but for the first time I glimpsed what the teachings of Sukkot might look like when woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.