Rain and Sukkot
Between the two World Wars in Eastern Europe, yeshiva students used to entertain each other at weddings and other happy occasions with Gramen — Yiddish rhymes that combined humor and scholarship. They were “party acts.” Today, with so many other forms of entertainment, the art is all but lost. Sad remnants are preserved at weddings in Hasidic circles where a Badchan (a Hasidic-style court jester and amateur comedian) introduces guests and relatives with a few lines of rhyming verse. But they often lack the skills of the past, so their rhymes are invariably banal, sycophantic ditties about how everyone is a scholar, a saint and a renowned benefactor. And the guests actually pay the Badchan for the honor.
Another old tradition of Jewish religious humor is the Purim Torah, where witty combinations of laws and ideas are strung together in a nonsensical, humorous, but usually brilliant flow of Talmudic and Halachic texts. My father was absolutely brilliant at both, in Yiddish and English.
This Jewish tradition was mirrored, in my youth, by brilliant non-Jewish or secular entertainers who combined academic and cultural excellence with musical talent — men like Tom Lehrer, a Harvard mathematician and satirical songster who used to pack auditoriums. And in England we had the brilliant Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Michael Flanders (1922–1975) was an actor and composer, and Donald Swann (1923–1994) was a pianist and linguist. Amongst their most famous are the Hippopotamus and the Gnu songs. Their version of Mozart’s Horn Concerto with comic lyrics still delights me. I still love their song about the awful British weather. Here are the words:
January brings the snow
Makes your feet & fingers glow.
February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.
Welcome March with wintry wind.
Wish you were not so unkind.
April brings the sweet spring showers
On and on for hours and hours.
Farmers fear unkindly May.
Frost by night hail by day.
June just rains and never stops.
Thirty days and spoils the crops.
In July the sun is hot.
Is it shining? No, it’s not!
August cold and dank and wet
Brings more rain than any yet.
Bleak September mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.
Then October adds a gale
Wind and slush and sleet and hail.
Dark November brings the fog.
Should not do it to a dog.
Freezing wet December, then
Bloody January again.
This is part of my multicultural upbringing. And this is how I remember the British weather, although as I write this, I sit in New York under driving rain, and Britain sees much more sun nowadays than it used to, thanks to global warming ( for those who believe it). But still, this explains why praying for rain on Sukkot didn’t resonate as much with me as it should have. It wasn’t until, as a teenager, I experienced Sukkot in Israel, and understood why rain was so important.
Today, of course, rain/water is a massive issue almost everywhere in the world. What was once seen as a minority concern of a small people living in the Middle East is now universal. The genius of our tradition is that old customs and laws that were instituted thousands of years ago are just as relevant today as they were then. Everything the Romans laughed at the Jews for are now major preoccupations and issues in modern society. The original Romans are long gone, but we are still here — though according to UNESCO, we never even existed.
Praying for rain, understanding its importance, and growing concerns over climate change are all issues that make Sukkot even more relevant now than ever. We need to be reminded of this. We need rituals to shake us out of our convenient stupor. This festival is about us and our position in the natural world and the importance of the decisions we take to preserve it or destroy it, for us and our children.