There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set. As a song, it is familiar to many of us who were introduced to it by immigrant parents or grandparents. And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.
Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, remains tender, profound and timely.
Several years ago, thinking about the song, as so many invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written. I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal. But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original.
A sukkaleh, quite small,
Wooden planks for each wall;
Lovingly I stood them upright.
I laid thatch as a ceiling
And now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.
A chill wind attacks,
Blowing through the cracks;
The candles, they flicker and yearn.
It’s so strange a thing
That as the Kiddush I sing,
The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.
In comes my daughter,
Bearing hot food and water;
Worry on her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”
Dear daughter, don’t fret;
It hasn’t fallen yet.
The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the sukkeleh’s still standing upright.
As we approach the holiday of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the Sinai desert, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy. We refer to Sukkos, in our prayers as z’man simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”
And yet, at least seen superficially, Jewish joy seems misplaced and elusive these days. Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of not only European cities but places like Canada and Australia as well – and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.
The poet, however, well captured a transcendent Sukkos-truth. With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure, ultimately protected as a people if not necessarily as individuals.
And Klal Yisroel’s security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our foreparents, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.
So, no matter how loudly the winds and the tyrants may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity. No, instead we redouble our recognition that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, that all is in His hands.
And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.
© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran