The night before I left they gave me a party and a broach. In the center was a rhinestone circle inside a map of Brooklyn. “So you’ll always know where you are,” my friends said.
When I left Brooklyn and moved to the Midwest, I couldn’t find friends to match the ones I left behind. We weren’t so much close as tight, swimming in a stream of performers in plays, nightclubs and Renaissance Fairs. Leaving opened up a hole the size of a canyon inside me. I kept looking for what I had and eventually gave up on finding it.
Then suddenly one year at Sukkot, interesting things started to happen. A friend bought me a sukkah when I had to leave home after a divorce. Other friends invited me to a sukkah party and we turned on Middle Eastern music and belly danced. They invited me to Seders and Shabbat dinners and book clubs, and we started, for want of a better word, to see each other. They could see me. I could see them.
On this particular Sukkot, my friends’ party is in the evening. Inside everyone is smiling, bustling, cooking, stretching their fingers out for sneaky bites of chocolate and yelling to be heard above the din. The sukkah is on the porch, and though it is not traditional in the sense that you can’t see the sky, the open windows bring in air and the gathering darkness.
The room is decorated with the bright, dry flowers of fall and we sit on cushions on the floor. We light candles and sit down with our dishes in our laps; it grows darker as we eat and talk. My husband Pete hasn’t been to a sukkah party and though he’s not a social man, I feel him starting to relax beside me. There is something to be said for eating delicious sukkah food in the dark next to people who know and love you. Do they love you? I do. I lean toward him and we kiss. No one sees us. I think he will be okay if we stay for a while.
After dinner the talking grows softer, more intense. Some people leave and the rest of us draw closer—Paul and Paula, our hosts; their son and daughters, Aaron, Leora and Nadia, with Leora’s fiancé Michael and Nadia’s husband Oleg and their new baby, Maya. I’m sitting across from Beth and Dianne, women I could easily talk to for hours. I have known everyone here for enough years to be able to know their faces in the dark and to recognize the rhythms of their voices, whether close or far away.
We talk about holidays and Beth asks if we shouldn’t get together once a month on Shabbat. It could be potluck so the host or hostess wouldn’t have to cook, and we could make whatever we felt like making. I start grinning like a baby to hear this, remembering dinners in New York with friends in younger days.
There is something about a circle of close friends that makes you taller, more beautiful and stronger. You can be who you are, and all you have to do is walk in the door and fit like a puzzle piece into a world you own. There are no stairs to climb, no interviews, no auditions; you can plug in and light up the room or shrink to the corner and read a magazine. Whatever you do, you will be part of these people and they will be part of you, whenever you are together.
When I moved I thought I’d lost that feeling forever. You get busy, you get married and you get kids, or you get divorced and then re-married and you work, work, work and there’s no time for anyone. So you wait for Sukkot, which brings an island of peace in the fall before Thanksgiving descends with its more traditional family dinners. You take time to decorate the sukkah, remembering the booths built by ancient Israelite tribes on their way to Jerusalem to worship in the Holy of Holies.
Or you don’t remember. You think instead of building the little booths now, nailing in boards and hanging branches of drying corn and willow. You make picnic foods and put on sweaters, and when your friend tells you she lost something precious in her life or that she is afraid, you listen, you give her that gift, because she is your friend. And you know you can also tell her you feel lost a lot too, and afraid that you won’t get to where you always wanted to go before you die.
And then, without meaning to, you feel alive in ways you can’t remember feeling for a very long time. There is nothing special, really, that you can point to; just sharing confidences and planning dinners, laughing at a baby’s yawn or hearing a friend tell you something they would never share with anyone else. But add it all up and the world is a little better, softer, rounder, and your candles burn a bit hotter and brighter. You are home, and you don’t need a broach to tell you so.
Of course, my friends in New York are still very much part of me, and I see them whenever I can. I am grateful too for my family, and heaven knows, my guy keeps me alive more than anyone. But the power we gain in friendships is something else again. I’ve stood on stages and bowed to a roomful of applause; I’ve sung harmonies under tents with band mates and thanked strangers for their kindness and praise. But nothing has made me stronger than my friends.
On the first night of Sukkot, we say a blessing said on other holidays too, thanking God for bringing us to this moment. As it happens, at this sukkah party, the plans we make for Shabbat don’t materialize as well as they should; we get busy and slack off, and it won’t be until Hanukkah that I see my friends again. But the memory of this evening in October is still blessing me. Like Sukkot, these friendships may be impermanent, fragile and mortal—but no less lasting than the holidays they leave behind.