It was an experience I will never forget. It was Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot, the intermediate days when one can go to work. My father went to work, and my mother and I were going to the synagogue for Sukkot services.
My mother did not drive — a rarity in Los Angeles! — so we took the bus to the synagogue. Here I was, a 12-year-old boy with his mother, about to board a public bus holding a lulav and etrog. I knew that this would feel different than all of the other times I rode the bus, but I never anticipated what was coming.
It was a packed bus, so my mother and I stood in the front section. The lulav stood out, and people were curious. Why would a young boy all dressed up in a suit be holding a palm frond with leaves? Some asked what it was; others told me they had friends who celebrate this holiday.
As I fielded questions about the lulav, an elderly woman sitting at the front of the bus signaled for me to come over to her. I walked over to where she sat, and she asked me where I was going. “To the synagogue,” I said, “My mother is taking me to Sukkot services.”
With an emotional look, she said, “I can’t go to services. I haven’t been to shul in years. But I do have a request: would you please let me bench on the lulav and esrog?”
She pronounced “shul,” “bench (bless),” “lulav” and “esrog” with a heavy Yiddish accent, and it was clear that she was originally from Eastern Europe.
“Of course you can,” I responded. I began to take the lulav out of the protective plastic, and I removed the etrog from the box. As I did this, I noticed the talking in the bus quieting down.
The woman wanted to stand, so my mother and I helped her up. She took the lulav and etrog in her hand, and as she began to pronounce the blessings, I looked at her hands, and I noticed something that I will never forget. Her frail, old hands were trembling, and on her arm, there was a tattoo of numbers. Her pronunciation of the blessings, in her thick Yiddish accent, was powerful and deeply spiritual.
She finished the blessings, handed me the lulav and etrog, and sat down. She looked up at me and said, “It’s been a long time — thank you.” The next thing I knew, the quiet bus erupted into applause.
Other than Israel, America is perhaps the only other country in the world where a young child of Jewish immigrants can ride a public bus carrying a lulav and etrog, hand it to an elderly Holocaust survivor who in turn recites the blessing over the lulav — and everyone on the bus applauds.
It’s more than symbolic that I experienced this on Sukkot, a holiday where we give thanks for having a roof over our heads. American Jews should never lose sight of what a great country we live in. As we dwell in our beautifully decorated but nonetheless frail sukkahs, we should contemplate the depth of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus,” whose words are inscribed at the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It is not by chance that an American Jew would write these words. Well versed in her people’s long history of exile and persecution, Lazarus fully understood what a privilege it is for Jews to live in the United States. Lazarus expressed this in another powerful poem she wrote titled “1492.” She called the year 1492 “Thou two-faced year,” as 1492 indeed held a double-edged irony.
In that year, after a long, bloody and brutal inquisition, the Spanish Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain. Yet in that same year Christopher Columbus discovered America, a place that would ultimately become a grand sukkah of shelter, freedom and democracy for millions of Jews.
Sukkot is a time when we are reminded to thank God for life’s blessings. In a minimal structure of temporary walls with a roof made of palm fronds, we celebrate life and are thankful for what we have. One of our greatest blessings is the privilege to live in this great country, the United States of America, where we are free to be ourselves and express our identity — in our temporary sukkahs, in our permanent homes … and even on a public bus.