Booths in Bethesda
When I was a boy, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Kansas City meant that I was a member of a very defined, closed community with distinctive rules and religious obligations. There is a clearly delineated body of Orthodox Jewish law. Under that law, certain foods are forbidden. Travel more than a specified distance is forbidden on the Sabbath and on certain festivals. Dress is ordered, as are methods of getting along in the courts or in the banks with fellow Jews.
Nevertheless, in Kansas City we sometimes negotiated” the rules and regulations ordered by Old Testament law and by the rabbis. This “negotiable Judaism,” as it might be called, allowed each of us in the community to pick and choose which parts of the body of law were meaningful for us. It allowed us to discard rules with which we did not agree or that we considered inconvenient to our chosen lifestyle. Many of my Jewish friends gave up eating kosher foods; some disregarded synagogue attendance; others started dating non-Jewish girls, while some of their parents went against the Jewish rules and got divorced without a get (the official rabbinic certificate of divorce).
After I became a believer in Yeshua and joined Jews for Jesus, I lived and ministered in several cities. I was in San Francisco, New York City and Chicago before setting up my present home in Bethesda, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. During my years in New York I was impressed by the number of Jews who celebrated Sukkot, the fall Feast of Booths described in Leviticus 23:33ff. In Kansas City my family had never really celebrated this holiday at home. Our only participation had been to donate the necessary branches from the large weeping willow tree in our front yard for the synagogue sukkah, a three-sided structure with a roof composed only of tree branches.
As a believer in Yeshua now, I can appreciate Sukkot as I did not while I was living my negotiable Judaism in Kansas City. Now Sukkot reminds me of the power of God to sustain my people in the wilderness while they lived in temporary tents or shacks with no capacity for self-provision. It marks the season in Jewish history when we could not provide for ourselves. If God had not provided for us, we would have died in the wilderness. So my people celebrate, using items that are unusual for most moderns—palm branches, citrons and the flimsy booths themselves—and by these we give praise to God for His good love and provision for us.
Other traditions have grown up in both Jewish and Christian subcultures about Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles. During this holiday Jews finish the annual reading of the Pentateuch and restart it. Ramshackle huts or lean-tos are constructed next to Jewish homes. Meals are eaten there, and the very observant even sleep there throughout the eight-day holiday. Many Christians regard the Feast of Booths as the consummate messianic holiday. Citing Bible verses that in the last days Gentiles will celebrate the festival and go up to Jerusalem to dance and sing with the Jewish people, many travel to Israel at this season to worship and to celebrate.
For my family Sukkot is a quiet time of gladness in our God. I am not very good at building things. A celebration that requires me to build a booth next to our house could be intimidating, so it’s a good thing for me that the sukkah is supposed to be a frail structure. This makes Sukkot one of my favorite carpenter holidays.
When we were living and ministering in suburban Chicago we started a tradition in our family. We would build our booth next to the house, let the children design the inside decor and eat at least one of our daily meals there. We would invite friends in for the reading of the book of Ecclesiastes (because without the Lord’s provision, all is vanity). We would have each person shake the lulav (the traditional sheaf of palm, myrtle and willow branches) while holding the etrog (the lemon-like citron) to invoke God’s blessings on the four corners of the earth.
Since those years in the Windy City, we have kept up the traditions in our home near D.C. Now with our three children and many friends, we put up the lean-to sukkah in Bethesda every year and recall God’s continued provision. We remember that not only did He take care of ancient Israel in a remote wilderness 3500 years ago, but He also takes care of us today as we look to Him. Thanks be to God.
Bob Mendelsohn is the leader of Jews for Jesus' work in Sydney, Australia. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Kansas City, but became a college drop-out when he decided to look for the meaning of life in the counterculture of the '60s. He found meaning and relevance in Jesus which caused him much trouble at home. But he says, It was worth the cost." Bob has worked for Jews for Jesus since 1979, and served as the leader of our work in Washington DC and New York City before moving to Sydney in 1998. Bob and his wife Patty both graduated from the University of Kansas and Fuller Seminary. The Mendelsohns live in Sydney near their son. Their two daughters and one grandson live in the US.