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 know it, thanks to 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, is still tender, profound and timely.
Thinking about the song, as I — and surely others — 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 little sukkah still stands upright.
As we approach the Yom Tov of Sukkos and celebrate the Divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the Midbar, we are supposed — indeed, commanded — to be happy. We refer to Sukkos in our tefillos as zman simchaseinu, “the time of our joy.”
And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days. “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world. Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot. The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.
The poet, however, well captured a 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 because our ultimate protection, as a people, if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.
And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our Avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.
And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity. Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.
And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.