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For Sukkot, a time to be thankful

When I moved here from Ohio 30 years ago, the first friend I made was Yael, the daughter of a rabbi from Israel. She had grown up immersed in Judaism’s rituals, but left orthodoxy behind when she came to Los Angeles, married a businessman and settled in suburbia.

Still, every fall, she would erect a sukkah — a makeshift shelter with wooden posts, canvas walls and leafy roof — next to the swimming pool in her backyard. For seven days, her family would eat every meal inside that shelter, in observance of the holiday Sukkot, considered in the Jewish faith “the season of our rejoicing.”

She had her religion and I had mine. But this was a holiday I couldn’t help but covet; one that seemed rooted in nature’s limitless bounty and in God’s unfailing love.

So I felt blessed this week by an unexpected invitation to join a family celebrating Sukkot.

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Rachel Malkin’s offer was a “thank you,” she said, for my Tuesday column about a group of women who repaired the crumbling home of an elderly, disabled woman and her seven adopted children.

Their story was “delightfully inspiring,” she said. Malkin’s story would inspire me, as well.

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Sukkot is one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar, a celebration that comes on the heels of the solemnity of Yom Kippur. It commemorates the 40 years the Jewish people wandered in the desert wilderness on their way from Egypt to Israel.

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The word “sukkah” means booth, and refers to the temporary shelters Jews lived in as they wandered. Jews around the world build sukkahs outside their homes and, following a biblical commandment, spend as much time as possible during the week inside them.

There are special prayers and rituals, and for the Orthodox, like Malkin, no work is permitted on the holiday’s first two days. No writing or driving or talking on the phone, no checking your e-mail or Facebook page.

It’s a holiday that passes unnoticed by non-Jews in most parts of this city, where there are no decorations or market specials. But in the Fairfax district — the heart of the Orthodox Jewish population in Los Angeles — the celebration is hard to miss.

At night, brightly lit sukkahs shine from driveways and front lawns, and families led by men in black suits and broad-brimmed hats crowd the sidewalks outside homes and synagogues.

I visited Malkin’s home on Wednesday afternoon as she wrapped up her holiday preparations. She had jotted down a Sukkot primer on the back of an envelope for me. We talked on her patio shelter, fashioned from wooden blinds and a canopy of eucalyptus branches.

“We build a sukkah and ‘dwell’ in it 7 days,” she had written. “It is a mitzvah to say the bracha ‘blessing'…" She read aloud to me from the Machzor, the Sukkot prayer manual, tracing the Hebrew words with her finger as I followed. She had downloaded a worship schedule from a local rabbi for me and saved an advertisement for a “High End Complete Kosher Sukkah, from $399, best price in town.”

She wanted me to understand the holiday, its context and conventions.

I wanted to understand Malkin, a mercurial actress now consigned by her own beliefs to covered hair and modest dress.

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Her story is familiar in many religions. A child grows up oblivious, or resistant, to parental traditions. Time passes, she circles back, drawn by unexpected obligations, unbidden bonds.

Malkin grew up in Detroit, one of five children of Sol A. Dann, a lawyer and community activist with a startlingly diverse persona:

In the 1940s, Dann helped birth the nation of Israel as part of the United Nations committee preparing its legal briefs. In the 1950s, he was a thorn in the side of American automakers, uncovering corporate incompetence and malfeasance. In the 1960s, he served on the legal team defending Jack Ruby in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. In the 1970s, when Malkin moved with her husband to a Native American reservation in Arizona, Dann would visit, “bringing matzo and lighting candles,” she said.

“He was larger than life — a wise and wonderful man,” in his daughter’s eyes. And when he died in 1975, she was struck by all his absence would require.

“I watched the community gather, the support, the rituals…I thought: Who’s going to do this now that he’s gone?” Gradually, her own faith evolved.

She began by not writing on the Sabbath. She stopped using the phone, then stopped driving. Her siblings, spread around the country, were separately pursuing a similar process.

“It was a part of us,” Malkin told me. “Neshama,” she said. Hebrew for a person’s soul.

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We talked until sunset in her family’s sukkah. Her husband, Michael, and two of their sons, Abe and Benjamin, joined us. The boys had flown in for the holiday from Boston and New York. Daughter Molly would spend this first night with her husband’s family. Their oldest son, David, was celebrating in New York with his wife.

Michael, a retired psychiatrist, doesn’t share his wife’s Orthodox leanings. He was raised a secular Jew; his father was a journalist.

But Rachel’s religious transformation hasn’t fundamentally changed the woman he fell in love with on their first date, 43 years ago. “We’re complementary,” he said, smiling across the table at her. “We compromise.”

She smiled back and tossed out a Hebrew phrase that translates to peace in the house. “This is a holiday he likes,” she said. “I cook a lot.”

Her children honor her beliefs, but she expects them to follow their own spiritual process. “Do my kids do this now? Did they do it before? Will I always do it?” Malkin raises her hands, as if in supplication to a larger force.

She understands the power of ritual to shape us. “How do you plant a tree? You can’t do it just by words,” she said.

What would her father think of her evolution, I ask her.

She shuffles through her handwritten notes, then explains to me the Sukkot blessing Arba Minim: A citrus fruit native to Israel is embedded in a sheaf of branches, then shaken and waved in every direction, symbolizing the omnipresence of God.

“I have the feeling of my father’s hands around my hands whenever I shake it,” she said. Her eyes grow moist and her nose reddens.

And I sense that his presence is as real to her then as the eucalyptus branches over our head, the setting sun and the glimmer of the rising moon beyond.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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