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Angela Himsel

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Blessed Are Those Who Enter: Sukkot, Hospitality and Home

Posted: 10/01/10 01:14 PM ET

After midnight, and Daniel is putting the final touches on his paper about the role that hospitality plays in Homer's Odyssey when we hear a little squeak. It is, undoubtedly, a mouse. Or mice. For they have returned. A few years ago, there was a rat infestation on our block, and at night when I walked the dogs, I would have long, grim conversations with my neighbors about rat poison and exterminators. Our block hit back at the critters, and ultimately drove them into a more lax, fat-cat neighborhood, probably the Upper East Side. But lately, I've heard unmistakable sounds that they are back. Since I have eight houseguests coming in for my mother-in-law's big birthday party, I can only hope that the mice are polite enough to remain secluded when company is around.

In anticipation of the arrival of our cousins, nieces, brother-in-law and sister-in-law, I spend a few days racing around the house tidying up. I toss out a bunch of really tired, raggedy towels, move a box of papers and magazines dating from 2007, some small sculptures, and a container of Daniel's schoolwork from middle school into a closet, place an unsqueezed tube of toothpaste in a basket in the bathroom, make space in the closets for everyone to hang their clothes, stock the fridge with milk and juice and yoghurt while purging it of questionable-smelling humus and herring salad left over from our Yom Kippur break fast, pull more pillows out of the closets, place tissue boxes next to the beds, and send up a prayer that the mice will have the decency to keep quiet.

Family descends, and it is a busy, riotous weekend, with suitcases opened on the kitchen floor, an ever-changing selection of bagels and cookies and grapes and macaroni and cheese appearing and disappearing on the kitchen table, keys to the house lost and found, late night retellings around a cluttered kitchen table about family members caught in compromising positions, and an ambitious, last-minute craft project for Grandma entailing glue sticks, old photographs and heavy stock paper.

I try, and basically manage, to make certain that everyone has what he or she needs over the weekend: pajamas and a phone recharger for my niece, Jacqui, who forgot hers; an ice pack for Bob's twisted ankle, and a battery recharger for his camera. I am entranced by my four year old great-niece, Sophia, who insists on walking ahead of me wherever we go, "Because I'm the leader, Aunt Ang." Sophia spends a lot of time standing in front of the pantry and with a hopeful voice, asks me, "Aunt Ang, can I have a snack?" to which I reply, "Yes, of course, what would you like?" And then, again, my leader says, "It's your house, Aunt Ang, I don't know what you have," reminding me that she's the guest, I am the host.

Then it's the birthday party, which is held on Sunday afternoon in the sukkah at our synagogue. The sukkah is dressed to the nines. Blue and white banners, strings of mixed, fake fruit, and various shiny garlands in the shape of stars and bells, iridescent gold and purple, hang from the bamboo poles that serve as the sukkah's "ceiling. Posters - of the seven species of the land of Israel, of Sabbath candles, of the words, "Barooch HaBaim" - "Blessed are those who enter" - are tacked to the walls. I take a tiny bit of credit for how beautiful the sukkah looks, for I, as part of the synagogue's Sisterhood, spent a Sunday with other members and a bunch of children helping to put the decorations up. One wants, after all, one's house to look nice for one's guests.

It occurs to me, as I meet and greet the friends and family who are our guests and have come to celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday, that Sukkot is the holiday that most centers around guests and emphasizes hospitality. This is ironic since a sukkah is a temporary dwelling, not one's home at all, and it's difficult to be a good host without a bathroom, fresh towels, heat, boxes of tissues...
During the 40 years in which the Israelites wandered in the Sinai Desert, they lived in temporary huts as the guests of God, who provided them with food and water. Today, we continue this tradition of hospitality by inviting friends and strangers to eat with us in our sukkahs. Religiously observant Jews invite other guests into their sukkah, as well - the ushpizin, ("visitors") the seven heavenly guests: Adam, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. All of God's guests - the transient and the enduring - meet under the sky that peeks through the sukkah's bamboo poles.

This mingling of the past and the present reminds me of one of the examples of hospitality that Daniel cited in the Odyssey, when Menelaos gave his guest, Telemakhos, a gift that had been given to him. "That's re-gifting," I argued to Daniel, but he insisted that back then, it was an honor, as not only did it acknowledge the hospitality of someone who came before but it also linked Menelaos' reputation to this other person who was famous for his generosity. When I look around the sukkah at my mother-in-law (whose age I won't mention, but it is not 89), and at her 17 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and another one on the way, it's lovely to see the manifestation of past and present co-existing, and lovely to be linked to someone like her, famous for her warmth and generosity to others.

My house feels empty when my guests leave, though I find physical traces of family in the blow dryer forgotten in the bathroom, the two telephone rechargers inadvertently abandoned in the bedroom, and Sophia's book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs on the kitchen cabinet.

The laws of hospitality are slightly different today than before, but only slightly. I'm not planning any time soon to gift my guests with a "mixing bowl, wrought of silver but rimmed with hammered gold." But the effort we make for our guests, whether in a nearly empty hut or in our cluttered, mice infested homes, blesses not only the guests but also the host.