With the painting of our sukkah still in the planning stage, there’s also the matter of other decorations to consider. My challenge has been to approach the project with the environmental values provided by tikkun olam. I return to the central guiding text: Bal tashchit, or ”Do not destroy” (Deuteronomy 20: 19-20). For this tikkunknitter (I’ve written elsewhere about finding the points of contact between Jewish environmental values and knitting), the response is practically automatic: reduce, reuse, recycle. But how to decorate the sukkah?
On the first day, you shall take the fruit of a goodly tree [etrog], palm branches, myrtle boughs, and willows, and rejoice … Leviticus 23:40
Sukkot is a harvest festival, with ritual objects associated with the biblical text: the etrog (citron) and lulav (joined palm, myrtle and willow leaves), and a tradition of decorating the booths with harvest fruits. The historic use of the etrog and lulav is recorded in the few surviving traces of ancient Judaism, such as the Tiberias synagogue, from the first century of the common era (link)
I am troubled by the etrog. The recent film Ushpitzin documents the lengths, perhaps irresponsible, some traditional Jews go to obtain a suitable etrog (though it’s a splendid exploration of the friction between religious and secular Jews in Israel, and the reach of faith and the value of hospitality). Since I participate in the liberal Reform tradition, my task is to find a way to make sense of the inherited texts and traditions.
As a rare object of beauty (visual and odorous), the contribution of the etrog to the experience of the holiday is self-evident. But the fruit is expensive, of limited use after the holiday (when it is usually inedible), and the environmental costs of shipping the fruits to observant Diaspora Jews (to provide fruits at their best) are high. I am troubled by the conflict between my commitment to the integrity of the environment (all creation) and observance of the holiday in Diaspora. Fortunately, Rodeph Shalom’s etrog can stand in for me, and I’m left with the task of the remaining harvest fruits.
A Plastic Garden?
Plastic fruits and vegetables covered the sukkahs I recall from the synagogues of my childhood in the 1960’s, and they are still readily available (though the price is somewhat dear). But plastic presents its own challenges. I am reminded of Rabbi Marc Rosenstein’s June essay in his Galilee Diary, “Plastic,” in which he reflects on the way in which the dependence of modern Jewish identity on the land of Israel is challenged by the transformation of Israel from an agrarian to industrial society, in which the gardening of the land has been replaced by the production of – plastic. Rosenstein asks
…what do you do when agriculture is not profitable and cannot support the community? When increasing numbers of the post-pioneering generation find no satisfaction or challenge in agricultural labor? How central is the soil in our self-image? Well, there are 269 kibbutzim today – and they operate 377 factories. Only fifteen percent of the kibbutz workforce works in agriculture. Two thirds of Israel’s plastics exports come from kibbutz factories; and while I don’t have a statistic, my experience is that it is hard to find a kibbutz that doesn’t have a plastic factory: toys, Styrofoam containers, furniture, packaging, films, irrigation pipe, etc. etc.
The romance of working the land diminishes when your fields are tilled by Thai contract workers, and your primary income is from molding plastic widgets. I wonder: in the Plastic Age, what exactly is the meaning of the soil of Eretz Yisrael in our identity?
I share Rosenstein’s struggle to understand the place of Israel in my own Jewish identity. This year I’ll let my commitment to environmental action trump the live etrog, and guide my choices for our “native sukkah”. If plastic has become central to Israel’s modern identity, then this is a chance to make productive, environmentally-friendly, even “native”, use of it in Diaspora.
With reduce/reuse/recycle in mind, I’ve started to sift through my stash for the making of a knitted harvest. With the help of a simple pattern (here) as a general guide and a ball of bright yellow acrylic leftover from a community afghan project (reduce) was converted into a nifty lemon (below, far left) in
less than an hour. I quickly “greened” the process further, digging into my stash of colored plastic bags (saved for a variety knitting and crocheting) for the yellows. Ten minutes later I had yards of yellow plastic yarn (reuse) from 2 bags (far right), and the second fruit (2nd from left) was completed in short order. An ancient bag of polyfil provided the stuffing for the acrylic lemon; a third plastic bag filled the plastic lemon. As far as I can tell, they are washable and durable – we’ll see after they spend a week in the sukkah – but if not, then they’ll find their way into the blue bucket (recycle). The internet provides plenty of models for the rest of the harvest I’m planning: apples and pears, oranges, eggplants, carrots, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, celery, even broccoli! Squash, asparagus, grapes and others will easily be based on pattern modifications.
Information about making and working with plastic bag yarn can be found all over the internet – try here, here and here for a some of the clearest and best illustrated discussions of looped yarn, and “How to Knit a Plastic Bag” for making a continuous strand yarn.
Sept 12th, 2007 Pattern alert!
You will find a photo of my knitted etrog, along with directions for knitting (with either straight or double point needles) here. You’ll also find updates on the progress of the sukkah and its knitted fruits and vegetables here (click this link)
Sept 26th, 2007 Pattern alert!
My pattern for clusters of knitted grapes is now available here.