(JTA) — When I asked Rabbi Diane Fersko why she decided to add to the growing list of recent books written about antisemitism, she referred to Passover.
On the holiday, Jews tell and retell the familiar story of the Exodus, she explained, and often add to it. The reasons for and solutions to antisemitism must also be told again and again, in ways, she said, that “connect to the past, and talk about what’s happening now.”
Her new book, “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism,” also has a Passover motif. So much of contemporary antisemitism, she writes, is about “narrowing” – the same way that the Israelites’ identity in Egypt (Mitzrayim, or “The Narrows,” in Hebrew) was restricted to a “specific, inflexible, and incomplete Jewish stereotype.” She sees such narrowing in the way even well-meaning people expect Jews to look or behave. “Narrowing” is what leads the far right to assign Jews to a conspiracy to undermine the West. And the left “narrows” Jews when they slot members of a diverse, complex community as white people who are leveraging their privilege to oppress others, especially Palestinians, and who themselves have no claim on victimhood.
Fersko is the senior rabbi, since 2020, at the Village Temple, a Reform congregation in Manhattan. She began at the start of the coronavirus epidemic, and her efforts to engage congregants despite the lockdown were the subject of a piece in The New Yorker.
Her 10 years in the rabbinate have also coincided with a rise in reports of antisemitic incidents, from vile social media campaigns to the killing of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. She wrote the book in part as a response to the questions she has gotten from members of her congregation.
“I’ve been having to preach about antisemitism for the decade or so that I’ve been a rabbi,” she told me. “Congregants started telling me their stories, and asking me their everyday questions. I felt like my congregants were asking amazing questions that I couldn’t answer on the fly. They deserved more serious answers, longer answers, and they deserve a book that hopefully helps them with the everyday antisemitism that they faced.”
In a conversation last Monday, we spoke about the climate for Jews on American college campuses, why one editor turned down the book and why physical violence from the right is the greatest threat facing Jews.
The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You catalog a lot of recent incidents of antisemitism in your book, but I want to compare what is happening now in America to, say, the middle of the 20th century. My parents and their generation remember having to change their last names to get a better job, there were certain clubs you couldn’t belong to, there were schools that wouldn’t allow you in. What are the main ways people are feeling antisemitism today, in your experience?
The answer depends on your life stage. If you are a teen, the answer is what is happening on social media, or at school. What I’ve seen is that there is almost no teen who has not experienced or witnessed some level of direct and personal antisemitism. So for them, I think it’s meteorological, it’s atmospheric, it’s just out there. And it’s something they encounter all the time on TikTok, on Snapchat, in the hallways, etc.
I’ve also seen it come up in the workplace, as our society is more and more reliant upon identity, and having a focus on that in our professional setting. It comes up when Jews are asked to sort themselves in a category that they’re not fully comfortable with, or being denied the chance to organize and gather as Jews where you see other groups organizing and gathering and having a desire to share with people that have similar experiences.
And yes, I have heard from some of my older congregants kind of, “You know, it’s not so bad.” I hope that’s true, but this could get quickly worse. And I think we really need to be quite active to make sure it doesn’t.
When you talk about people being denied the chance to organize, you tell that story about the parents in a New York City private school who wanted to form a Jewish affinity group, but the administration told them, “Now’s not the time.” What was in the mind of the administration? What were they so nervous about?
I’ve heard this story many times, from multiple people and different versions. The Jewish parents wanted to gather, like the other affinity groups in school, where their identity would be honored and celebrated. The administration, in many of these cases, has pushed back and said, “The optics don’t look good.” I think the idea there is the false idea that Jews are privileged, Jews have proximity to power, and that Jewish gatherings somehow take away from other types of justice — which I just find very upsetting because of course Jews have always been so closely tied to the idea of justice.
That reminds me of another point in your book, when you write that a book editor rejected the manuscript because it “centered Jews.” What do you think they meant?
I took this to mean that Jews don’t have the right to tell our stories. Or by telling our stories, it diminishes the pathway to justice for other groups, which I don’t believe is true. I certainly believe in the growing fight towards justice [for all groups], and a growing awareness of injustice that we’re struggling with in all our communities. But I think antisemitism is a part of that awakening. We need to acknowledge that antisemitism is real, that it’s back and in many troubling and tricky forms. And I think Jews have a right and an urgency and a need to tell our stories.
Or as you write in the book, “The liberal world has not embraced the notion that Jews have a meaningful history to tell. They are surprised that instead of being associated with victimhood, Jews are becoming increasingly associated with words like ‘privilege.’”
Yes. It seems shocking, because we don’t follow the same patterns as other minorities in our culture, right? It’s not necessarily that we’re a racial minority. We’re not a religion only. We are also an ethnicity and a history and a people and culture. We don’t fall into the kind of sorting that the wider culture likes to do. And so we’re misunderstood. I think there needs to be a fair amount of education about how Jews are a people, and just demonstrating to people that actually Jews today in the U.S. are less safe than we’ve ever been here.
You feel that? That American Jews have never been less safe in America?
I recently went to a briefing with different organizations and backgrounds in New York City where we spoke with the commissioner of police. And every Jew there had a story about a concern of physical violence — like me. I’ve received threatening postcards in the mail on multiple occasions over multiple years. Or someone in Brooklyn who was talking about the change of tone in his neighborhood and feeling concerned about doing everyday tasks like walking down the street. I think there is a lot of anxiety and tension over the freedom to be Jewish in public ways. And I think that’s scary.
I want to get back to the older congregant who says, “Things are not so bad compared to when I was a kid.” And certainly Jews have, in general, freedoms and material comfort in this country that they never had before.
When I first started talking about antisemitism from the bimah, that was the main piece of pushback that I got. I completely agree: What’s happened to us has been remarkably successful. And I think that’s wonderful. And I want it to stay that way. I want Jews to be able to be Jewish, in public and in private, and I want Jews to be able to be represented in cultural institutions, in academia, in medicine, in media and in any field you can think of.
And I think that we need to be aware that this has happened before. Jews have been successful before — not just in Germany, but in the Golden Age in the medieval period, when Jews were thriving and living with Christians and Muslims in the same area. But guess what? It didn’t last and it ended horribly on the Iberian Peninsula. So I don’t think we can fool ourselves and say, “Oh, look, you know, we’re over represented in a certain field, and therefore, we have nothing to worry about.” But it’s a wonderful fantasy.
You write at length and powerfully about right-wing extremism and the violent threat it poses, from the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh to the “Jews will not replace us” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a big part of the book and I don’t want to diminish that in any way. But I detect – and if I am wrong, tell me so – that the antisemitism of the moment that you find particularly confounding is on the left, perhaps because it comes from a world that includes your political allies on so many other issues.
First of all, I want to say I’m not trying to make an equivalence. Physical violence is the worst thing. Physical violence is the greatest threat and the greatest harm, and I see that from the neo-Nazi consortium more than any other group in the United States. So I just want to be clear about that.
When I write about the liberal world — and I don’t even mean politically liberal, I just mean broadly — that’s what I know. That’s who I am. And frankly, that’s what I love. Those are the values, ideas and people that I really want to be at home in. And I want the Jewish community to feel at home and welcomed and understood in those circles. And when I see an expansion of antisemitism in that world, it causes me grave concern, and I feel obligated to speak out as a liberal leader.
What Jewish groups might call antisemitic, left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups might defend as harsh but justified criticism of Israel’s human rights record. How do you tell the difference?
There’s no perfect answer, but what I tell people is to focus on the outcome of the conversation. If there’s a real outcome that would affect either Israelis or Palestinians, then I tend to be interested in it. Maybe this is a real conversation, if we want to learn from each other. If the outcome is only to create antisemitism on a college campus, then I do not think that conversation is worth having.
I hear a growing number of people that are just very uncomfortable being publicly Jewish on college campuses. And that’s wildly unacceptable.
How do you suggest they respond?
I tell kids and their parents, find a Jewish community when you get to campus. The first week, march yourself into Hillel or some other Jewish body and plant yourself there and make yourself known, because these conversations are not easy. And you will need the support and feedback of your community in order to know where you stand, to figure out your ideas.
You write about the dual loyalty charge, that Jews are suspect because of their attachment to Israel. Similarly, you cite cases in which liberal Jewish students are blocked from progressive coalitions on the assumption that as Zionists they can’t be “objective” not just on Israel but other things of concern to progressives. How do you explain, let’s say to a non-Jewish audience, that many Jews want their kids to identify very closely with Israel but that closeness does not imply dual loyalty?
You know, you can love a family member and still think about other things at the same time. It’s not a hard concept. When somebody comes to you, and accuses you of not being able to be objective because you’re a Jew, then that’s your opportunity to say “actually, what you’re accusing me of, it’s dual loyalties, here’s the history of dual loyalties, and here’s how you’re diminishing my role as a civic participant in student government, climate change, whatever sort of organization it is, based on the fact that I’m Jewish.” I don’t see a conflict at all in being a Zionist and being objective.
You talk about a certain kind of Christian antisemitism in the book, which could be described as appropriation — it’s not about killing Jesus, but almost the opposite: “You’re just like us,” which can be its own sort of denial of Jewish legitimacy.
Christian antisemitism historically has been about polarization: You are nothing like us, we are good, you are bad. But the Christian antisemitism of today is much different. And it often says that we’re the same as Christians. Growing up in Connecticut, I got so much of this: “What are you doing for Jewish Christmas?” There was a sort of pervasive identity denial, where there was a disbelief that I actually didn’t participate in any Christian rituals.
That’s so much better than the Christian antisemitism of the past, but I also think it needs to be talked about because it is reducing who we are as a people and eliminating our voices from public discourse.
The resurgence in antisemitism and intolerance in general of the past few years has coincided with the rise and presidency of Donald Trump, although a lot of people disagree whether he is the cause or the symptom. Trump’s name barely appears in your book. What do you think has changed in the past few years that has led to antisemitism’s comeback?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, but what I’ll say is that in my book, I interviewed third generation survivors. And one of them answered that question, and what she said was that all hate has basically risen as part of social media expression, where it has become normal to say horrible, hateful things online or see them said about you. I don’t think that’s the best answer to your question, because I really don’t know. But the truth is, I also am fighting what I see every day.
You are in New York City, which has a huge and growing haredi Orthodox community and the largest Jewish population in general outside of Israel. Do you see common ground among Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in combating antisemitism, or are they fighting this on two different tracks?
I think we need to fight antisemitism on all levels. There are a lot more levels than just liberal Jews and haredi Jews. Liberal Jews too can be divided and subdivided. I would love to see more coming together of the Jewish people, but I actually think that we’re on our way. And I see signs of hope, and community and positivity from many of my rabbinic colleagues across the denominational spectrums, that we understand that this is a serious threat. And we’re willing and eager to organize with each other to fight it.
You’re book is titled “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism.” I sometimes feel there is already a lot of talk about antisemitism – admittedly, Jewish conversation is my fulltime job — and I have heard others say that by concentrating on the threats against them Jews are ignoring, and failing to educate young people about, the ways Jewishness is flourishing or could flourish on its own diverse, creative terms.
I do very much appreciate the Dara Horn argument [in “People Love Dead Jews,” her 2021 book about antisemitism], which is basically, we need to celebrate Jewish life. And I think that is one of the best ways to fight antisemitism. I’m very interested in Jews doing Jewish things in a very assertive, active way. And I think that will only serve to strengthen our community, which will help us to stand up as Jews when we need to.
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25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience
AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated.
On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?
In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.
The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.
The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.”
What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.
Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”
(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)
Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.
Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish: A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).
Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”
At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.
“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.
“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”
Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.
“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “
Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.
That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940.
The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.
A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day.
“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”
One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it.
“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower.
The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.
The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.
“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.”
I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.
“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”
Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”).
And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”
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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season
(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.
Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.
The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.
On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.
Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.
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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC
(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.
“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”
Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.
New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”
Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.
But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.
“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”
She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”
While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”
Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.
One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)
Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.
“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”
Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)
“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”
Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.
Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”
And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.
For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.
“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”
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