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Rabbi Michael Schwartz (far right) brings lulov and etrog to the Wampanoag tribe. COURTESY RABBI MICHAEL SCHWARTZ

A Sukkot tradition gains new meaning at a Native American pow-wow

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A Sukkot tradition gains new meaning at a Native American pow-wow

Rabbi Michael Schwartz (far right) brings lulov and etrog to the Wampanoag tribe. COURTESY RABBI MICHAEL SCHWARTZ

Attending a brit milah and watching the actual circumcision is, for many of us, as much as we would ever want to see of Judaism’s most raw and elemental traditions. Likely, the visual memory is more than we would like to have seen!

But there is a Jewish custom that rivals brit milah for the feeling it gives of connecting to the ancient and earthy, the primitive and mysterious, the strange and profound … Yet far more pleasant to watch and experience!

This year’s observance of Hoshana Rabba at Temple Sinai in Marblehead was a unique event that both celebrated and explored this seemingly odd but profoundly relevant Jewish holiday custom. Not all Jews make it a point to attend services on the last day of Sukkot, – the day on which that proverbial book we asked to be written into and sealed for life and good and blessing during the High Holidays – is finally closed. But there is more to it than that.

Hoshana Rabba is the culmination of our ancient week-long “rain dance” that is Sukkot. Sukkot takes place at the conclusion of harvest time in Israel, at the very start of the rainy season. The winter rains, of course, are essential for Israel today and all the more so in the agricultural society of ancient times.

During this harvest festival, we shake our lulav bundle of palm, myrtle, and willow branches, together with the etrog fruit, each day (except Shabbat) in the four directions, then up and down – … as if referencing the weather patterns and suggesting that moisture should gather from all around and rain should fall from up there to down here on the ground. The sound of the shaking lulav sounds a lot like rainfall.

Then, on the last day of the holiday known as Hoshana Rabba, we make seven circuits around the bimah in the synagogue, dance-like, while chanting various appeals for salvation from God. These seven circuits refer to the way the Cohanim (Jewish priests) would perform this ritual in the First Temple in Jerusalem. Large branches of willows cut from trees near Motza in the valley outside Jerusalem were used in that ancient Temple ceremony. These days, we take up five smaller willow branches at the conclusion of the “dance” and – get this! – smack them sharply on the ground several times, making some leaves fall off. The sound is exactly like the first raindrops spattering on the hard earth during a first-of-the-rainy-season cloudburst in Israel.

Some 40 people attended this ceremony at Temple Sinai this year, many for the first time. Following this odd but intense and beautiful ceremony, we boarded a bus and drove to Mashpee on Cape Cod. There we met a devoted student and practitioner of the dances of his indigenous Wampanoag People: Cheenulka Pocknett and his family. We learned about Native American dances and the stories the dances convey. We were able to compare the experience of sitting in our own “indigenous structures” – the sukkah shelter itself – with the experience of sitting in their wetu (wigwamdomed huts) and compared notes on what values the architecture expresses and the way of life such a shelter signifies.

Our hosts patiently answered all our questions about their Native American traditions and the challenges of maintaining their identity and values through the difficulties of history and in today’s world. Many of the challenges (and opportunities) are reminiscent of our own concerns as Jews.

They discussed their feeling of both connection to homeland and yet also exile from the entirety of their land, and especially from the land and sea which are overdeveloped and poisoned with pollution. We learned a few words in the language they are struggling to revive together with – much like Hebrew – the values and world views inherent and preserved in that language.

The day’s encounter opened our eyes wider to the depth of Hoshana Rabba’s foundations, and brought into focus the breadth of context for our most strikingly “different” Jewish holiday: its fundamental and universal humanity; its correlation to the values we share with other indigenous peoples who understand – and preserve – a profound connection to life with their land; and its ancient meaning and contemporary relevance. Θ

Rabbi Michael Schwartz leads Temple Sinai in Marblehead. The Temple Sinai outing was supported by a generous grant from Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn.

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