“Ok, Frommer, what’s your Religious Support Plan for the feast of Suck-it?” I almost laughed, but when a superior officer asks you a serious question in the U.S. Army, that’s usually not the best response. Every year, Jews around the world build and dwell in temporary booths called sukkot, just as our biblical ancestors did on their journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel. In 2012, as the only Jewish chaplain stationed in Kuwait, the festival of Sukkot was clearly in my Area of Responsibility, and as the first cantor ever to serve in military chaplaincy, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be the last. “Sir, I’ll make sure the Jewish soldiers have the sukkah they need,” I answered smartly. It was a plan as simple as it was foolproof, except for one tiny detail. I had no idea how I was going to do it.
Perhaps I might have been more prepared if I’d grown up like everyone else I seemed to meet in the Army—on a farm in the Midwest, chopping down trees and handcrafting pigpens. As it happened, my childhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan involved plenty of construction, but mostly with Lincoln Logs and Lego sets, and always following the directions. One year my family actually tried to assemble a life-size sukkah at our summer home in Claverack and though we never completed the project, we became too emotionally attached to our modest progress to ever dismantle it. The PVC pipes of our unfinished attempt remained in the backyard for a decade, standing amidst plant growth like some ancient ruin, silently waiting for UNESCO to arrive and add it to the World Heritage List.
During my undergraduate years at Yale and my cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College, I could always count on Jewish institutions like my synagogue or my roommate, Joshua Foer, to design some magazine-worthy sukkah with a floating roof, that I could enjoy for nothing more than a contribution to the potluck. It wasn’t until I joined the Army and the festival coincided with my unit’s pre-deployment exercises at Fort Irwin, CA, that I found myself cut off from these usual communal sources of construction. My holiday observance was saved at the last moment by the miraculous discovery of extra folding tables and wooden beams, which I cobbled together with some thorny desert brush to create the most unstable and hazardous sukkah since the Talmud described how to build one on the back of a camel. I would need to considerably improve my efforts in Kuwait, where the lack of combat had spawned an inversely proportional obsession with safety regulations.
I first paid a visit to the Department of Public Works to see if their engineers could support my efforts. I was greeted by a jovial sergeant the size of Paul Bunyan who knew all about “sukkahs” from previous deployments to Iraq. “I’ll need it by September 30th,” I explained. “WHY THAT’S RIGHT WHEN I LEAVE COUNTRY—HO HO HO!” he boomed. “BUT DOOON’T WORRY—MY REPLACEMENT ARRIVES A WEEK BEFORE, SO I’LL MAKE SURE HE’S SPUN UP ON ALLLLLL THE DETAILS!” It was hard for me to share his optimistic outlook. The transfer-of-authority period between incoming and outgoing units was usually pretty unsettled, with the former still learning basic info like which latrine overflowed the fastest and the latter already halfway out the door. It seemed unlikely that my sukkah, sitting somewhere in Annex Z of DPW’s priority schematic, would be remembered for merit during such a chaotic time.
I returned to the chapel to prepare for services, already nervously contemplating what I would say to my supervisor when DPW’s sukkah failed to materialize, and wondering if perhaps I could order enough Legos on Amazon to build the thing myself.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. “Is this where the Jewish services are?” the visitor asked. “The flyer said they’d start here in fifteen minutes.” His uniform indicated that he belonged to a new engineering company that had just arrived. My very own deus ex machina.
In two days, Engineer Congregant’s soldiers had secured the necessary lumber and constructed a sukkah that looked sturdy enough to withstand an airstrike. I was delirious with relief. “Wait till we send pictures of this to the Public Affairs Office for a story on cooperation between the chaplain and engineering corps,” I babbled. “That might not be such a good idea,” Engineer Congregant advised. “My battalion commander thinks all this wood was requested for some major repairs to an important supply shed!”
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.
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