Bnei Brak, Israel, December 16 – Israeli ultra-orthodox Jews voiced confusion this week upon seeing vast stretches of foreign cities and towns decorated with tinsel, a material obviously intended for the Sukkah.
The holiday of Sukkot ended two months ago, and Jews of all stripes have by this time dismantled their temporary dwellings for the festival and disposed of, or at least stowed, the decorations. The sight of decorations festooning the streets, houses, businesses, and public facilities across Europe and the Americas therefore sparks bewilderment.
Tinsel decorations for the Sukkah enjoy a robust market in Israel in the weeks preceding the holiday, which marks the end of the harvest season and usually occurs in October. The decorations, almost invariably of Chinese manufacture, feature traditional Sukkot colors of red, green, gold and silver, and include such identifiably Sukkot-themed items as hanging baubles, colorful strings of lights, and reflective, frilled streamers.
Seeing the decorations in use now, closer to Hanukkah, puzzles the Haredim, they report, since no such trappings are a typical part of Hanukkah observance. “I can sort of understand how maybe a totally ignorant sheygetz might get confused between one eight-day holiday and another, on both of which we say a full Hallel,” allows Gedalya Kloister, 50, referring to non-Jews and a series of Psalms of thanksgiving, respectively. “But I can’t see getting them completely confused like this. Everyone knows the decorations have no place outside an actual Sukkah anyway.”
Despite the puzzlement, some orthodox Jews appreciate the aesthetics of the decorations in their current context. “Sukkos is a partially a harvest festival,” says Nosson Nota Tannenbaum, 28, using the Eastern European pronunciation of the holiday’s name. “But it’s wintertime now, so obviously the trappings are going to be different in this season. I kind of like the way everyone uses fir trees as a vehicle for displaying Sukkah decorations.” He acknowledged that although a nod to Hanukkah might be more appropriate this time of year, olive trees are notoriously hard to come by beyond the Mediterranean.
“I especially like the way some families have even put up whole scenes of people visiting a family in a Sukkah,” adds Tannenbaum. “Even though it’s obviously not a kosher Sukkah and there’s always a woman and a baby, who should be pottur,” meaning exempt from the obligation.
“Also, there are sometimes animals, which is just weird.”
Bernard Adelman from Winthrop, Mass, writes:
“How does one derive [the Yiddish plural noun] ‘scotsim’ from [the singular] ‘sheygetz,’ when it seems that ‘scotsim’ would be the plural only of ‘scots’?
Sheygetz, of course, is a Yiddish word referring either to a young gentile male, or else to a young Jewish male who behaves like the Eastern European Jewish stereotype of a young gentile male –— that is, who is fun loving, unruly and more given to physical than to mental pursuits. If Mr. Adelman appears to associate this word with the inhabitants of Scotland, this is not because he really does, but because of the peculiarities both of his own spelling and of the pronunciation of what is known as northeastern Yiddish. This is the Yiddish that was spoken in Lithuania and Belarus, and I would hazard a guess that Mr. Adelman’s family came from this region. Here’s why.
Sheygetz derives from the biblical Hebrew noun sheketz, “abomination,” used in the Bible to refer to an unclean or nonkosher animal. Thus, for example, in a verse in Leviticus stating which fish may be eaten and which may not be, we read: “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers…they shall be an abomination [sheketz] to you.” In medieval Hebrew, sheketz became a not very complimentary way of referring to young gentiles, and in Yiddish, through a voicing of the unvoiced “k,” it turned into sheygetz. At a later stage, as we have said, sheygetz also came to be a not entirely uncomplimentary way of referring to a young Jew, much as the English word “rascal,” when applied to a boy or teenager, can have an affectionate or even an approving tone.
To take it a step further, the Hebrew plural of sheketz is shkatzim, with the stress on the last syllable, and in Yiddish this became shkotzim, with the stress on the first syllable. (Those of you who still remember last week’s column on “matzo” will understand why.) This in turn yielded in America — to the best of my knowledge, it is not found in European Yiddish — the back formation “shkotz” as a variant form of sheygetz. It was not, therefore, the singular “scots,” as Mr. Adelman imagines, that yielded the plural form “scotsim,” but rather the other way around.
But why “scots” and “scotsim” instead of “shkotz” and “shkotzim”? The “c” in place of “k” is Mr. Adelman’s own idiosyncrasy. The “s” instead of “sh,” on the other hand, is, as we have said, a characteristic of northeastern Yiddish, in which these two sibilant consonants tended to get confused. There is even a jocular Yiddish expression for this confusion, which was called sabbeshdiker losn or “Sabbath speech” — two words that are pronounced shabbesdiker loshn in ordinary Yiddish.
And yet, contrary to the popular notion, it does not actually happen in sabbeshdiker losn that the “s” sounds become “sh” sounds and the “sh” sounds become “s” sounds. Rather, “s” and “sh” merge into a single sound that is halfway between the two. It only seems that the two swap places because of an auditory illusion whereby the speakers of other Yiddish dialects, expecting the word for Sabbath to be pronounced shabbes, heard the first halfway sound as a nonstandard departure from “sh” that they interpreted as an “s,” and the second halfway sound as a nonstandard departure from “s” that they interpreted as a “sh.” In reality, it is the same sound in both cases.
Unlike the biblical noun sheketz, the biblical verb from which it comes, shakatz, “to abominate,” was never applied to sheygetzes. In fact, it was never used much in post-biblical Hebrew at all — although on at least one occasion when it was, the results were remarkable.
The story was told to me by an Israeli doctor, a friend of mine. He told me how once, while attending a medical convention in Madrid, he met a Spanish colleague who offered to show him around town. As they entered one of the city’s churches, my friend heard the Spaniard mumble some incomprehensible words that sounded like, “Sakes sakenu, tev tavenu.”
“What did you just say?” my friend asked his guide. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” was the reply. “It’s something my family has always said upon entering a church and that I was taught to say as a child, too.” My friend racked his brain — and then it came to him. “Sakes sakenu, tev tavenu” was the biblical “shaketz teshaktzenu, ta’ev teta’avenu, “You shall surely abominate and abhor it,” a phrase that occurs in a strongly worded injunction against graven images in the book of Deuteronomy. Unbeknown to the Spanish doctor, he was a descendant of Marranos — Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the days of the Inquisition, who had taught their offspring never to enter a church without whispering the aforementioned words as an expression of their true feelings. For generations, his ancestors had been saying them with no idea of what they meant. It sent a chill down my spine.
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With Yom Kippur happening at sundown tonight, you’ll barely have time to catch your breath before it’s time put the Sukkah up. Sukkot, the Festival of “booths” or “huts” begins the evening of Wednesday, October 8th and runs through Wednesday, October 15th.
Sukkot is known to celebrate the Fall harvest, and making decorations for the Sukkah has become a long standing tradition and a great way to get the children involved with the holiday. Below are 10 great crafts from the internet that will ensure a festive and beautiful Sukkah for your family.
(1) Citron Sun Catchers: CLICK HERE for instructions
(2) Tissue Paper Corn Craft: CLICK HERE for instructions
(3) Paper Chains: CLICK HERE for instructions
(4) Paper Lanterns: CLICK HERE for instructions
(5) Tissue Paper Pom Poms: CLICK HERE for instructions
(6) Rustic Star of David Lantern: CLICK HERE for instructions
(7) Woven Beaded Stars of David: CLICK HERE for instructions
(8) Dried Fruit Garlands: CLICK HERE for instructions
(9) Recycled Plastic Bottle Flowers: CLICK HERE for Instructions
(10) Recycled Lid Apple Craft: CLICK HERE for instructions
To kick off the Sukkot season, come join the JCC and PJ Library this Monday, October 6th from 5-6:30 in the J’s Sukkah in the Sculpture Garden for Shake It Up Baby: A Fun Family Sukkah Celebration.