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Carpenter’s Lament
Wed, 10/24/2007 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

When I was younger, a popular bumper sticker read: “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” Back then, I thought it referred to some strange pride non-Jews had in a series of Jews that, contrary to the direction of the gene pool, possessed modest skill with a chisel or saw.

Years later, when my understanding of the New Testament was more comprehensive, and I could unpack the literary layers of the sticker, I realized that this ubiquitous Jewish carpenter was, in fact, Jesus. This made a little more sense. For in my neighborhood, a Jew being a carpenter seemed as implausible as a Jew coming back from the dead.

I was reminded of this idea recently when, from the safety of my porch, I watched my wife and young children build our sukkah. The rest of my family has excellent hand-eye coordination, and a knack for imagining three-dimensional structures in their head. Somehow when I climb up the ladder, or try to orient a piece of wood while grabbing a handful of nails, I end up in the emergency room, or drop the hammer on the etrog from a height of three cubits. (The Talmud, in Bavli Gravitation 18H, teaches that, like a piece of toast always landing on the buttered side, a heavy object falling in the direction of an etrog will always land directly on the pupik, making it as kosher as a pig’s whiskers).

In short, our family’s home-improvement projects have generally not been improved by my presence.

So for the sake of shalom bayit (peace in the home), I agreed to my wife’s suggestion to leave the sharp tools in the hands of our toddlers, and instead “develop the aesthetic process” for the sukkah. At first I thought this meant I would design the decorations, but my wife had something else in mind.

“I was thinking more along the lines of, you know, you writing a novel about building a sukkah. That should occupy you until we’re done with the dangerous stuff.”

I agreed, and took careful notes as Aviv, my 5-year-old, perched on a high ladder, measured the distance between crossbeams with his tape measure, while Lior, almost 3, followed my wife with an oversized hammer, ensuring that the nails were indeed all the way in. After an hour of sweating over my laptop, I went inside for a malt.

At first I felt badly about not helping. Especially after our non-Jewish neighbors came over to watch the Jewish version of “Habitat for Humanity.” “Hey, Dan, why aren’t you lending a hand?” one of them called from outside.

I thought it would be cute to answer, “Who am I, Jesus?” Instead I stuck my head out the window, and quoted Rashi on the virtues of shalom bayit. “A man should certainly consult his wife regarding household affairs, but not general matters.” I added, helpfully, “Rashi means that men should focus on the secular sphere, and the women on the religious sphere. So tradition requires me to sit in the kitchen thinking about art.”

Later on, after our neighbors had fled, I began to wonder about the history of Jewish writing on sukkah building. The literature, post-Babylonia, was pretty slim, but it all pointed in the same direction. I can sum it up with a joke about the Rambam. A congregant asks his rabbi how to make a sukkah. The rabbi gives him a citation from Maimonides, which includes detailed building instructions. However, as soon as he finished putting up the sukkah, it promptly fell over. The man went back to the rabbi, who said, ‘The same thing happened to Maimonides. Why do you think he became a writer?’”

And then there are the moderns. Few people, for instance, know about the first draft of “The Natural,” Bernard Malamud’s mythical novel about America and baseball. Turns out Bern didn’t know a baseball from an etrog, and had originally set the book on a huge sukkah on Ebbet’s Field, where the hero shakes the lulav like it’s nobody’s business. Then there is Kafka’s unfinished story, “A Shkach on Both Your Houses,” in which a man, on trial for his life, can only prove his innocence by building a sukkah completely out of legal pads.

After the holiday was over, and I was well on my way to outlining a literary history of sukkah building, I felt confident enough to volunteer to help take down the sukkah.

“Let us handle this,” my wife said as she loaded up the boys with disassembled lumber. “You can get a head start on writing about Chanukah.”

Daniel Schifrin writes for McSweeney’s, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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