Sisterhood Blog

'Mad Men' and Our Mad Cool Sukkah

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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“Mad Men” is my favorite television show. I know, I’ve got lots of company. But the plaudits are well deserved for a show that relieves us of overstatement and laugh tracks.

Best about the incisively-written show is the recondite emotional life of its women. Sure, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) tries his hunky best to have mysterious moments, but the other men seem one-dimensional compared to the female characters written by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Peggy Olson, played by the fabulous Elisabeth Moss, is a female copywriter working in a man’s world. Her talent is big but her opportunities few, and her frustrations about the limitations of her roles professionally and socially play out on her expressive face.

No woman on the show is able to be her own person, really. All of the strong female leads, including secretary Joan Holloway and Betty Draper, Don’s wife, are limited by their men and the circumscribed roles generally permitted women in the early 1960s.

In their silences and facial expressions, these characters show how airless the life of middle- and upper-middle class women often was. (See Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” for more on that.)

Mad Men has also gotten lots of press for its detailed period décor.

Web site Double X has a new article by Kate Bolick about what the various environments in which the action takes place reveals about the era and its inhabitants.

That Double X piece got me to thinking: What décor defines a Jewish home?

A home looks Jewish to me when you see a lot of books.

My friend B, who is Lubavitch, raised 10 children in a small Crown Heights house where every surface that isn’t used for sitting or eating is covered with books. I mean every inch of the walls in the dining room and living room, floor to ceiling, even over the doorways and outside the bathroom.

Then, of course, there are the ritual objects that help define a Jewish home — Sabbath candlesticks, a kiddush cup and Chanukah menorah on a shelf or behind the glass of a breakfront.

Starting Friday night we’ll begin to temporarily live in our sukkah, an impermanent home in our back yard to remind us of the impermanence of our material lives and the experience of the Israelites wandering in the desert.

As our house does, my family’s sukkah reflects who we are as a family.

We have strings of plastic fish and moose lights, one of Grateful Dead lights (for my husband the Deadhead) and others that are just pretty colors. Hanging under the schach are mylar pomegranates and other spangly decorations bought in Boro Park, a big yellow Moshiach flag (in tribute to my husband’s Lubavitch roots and our own hopes for the advent of a better time) and little wooden hanging symbols of the seven “ushpizot,” our Biblical foremothers whose spirits we hope will accompany our time in the sukkah. (You know they are my contribution.)

Our kids make construction-paper decorations, and this year I’m going to ask each of our guests during the festival to make one when they get here, so that their presence can still accompany our meals in the sukkah even after they’ve left.

I can only imagine their reaction if Don and Betty Draper were to magically appear in our sukkah. What would they make of it?

What will your sukkah look like, and what décor defines a Jewish home to you?

Helene Aylon Thu. Oct 1, 2009

What defines an ideal Jewish Bayit to me?

When there's a Jewish woman in the house with her input in the Books as well as the Pots and the Bed.

There could be "sfarim" galore, but if only the male is studying essentially male input, it is the norm and not my visionary Jewish Bayit.

In our tradition, every aspect of life begins with the word, Bayit - House. There's the Beit Midrash, the Beit Sefer, the Beit Knesset, the Beit Hamikdash,even Beit Avot (term for cemetery.) As an artist I try to interject the female presence where it has been omitted. Take for example, my present installation at the Jewish Museum where I imagine a Beit Din with women sitting on the judicial chairs. If that comes to pass, we will "All Rise" - the title of the work.

Succot indeed shakes up notions of Home - the personal dwelling and the places that house us. Chag Sameiach, Helene Aylon

Margaret Teich Fri. Oct 2, 2009

I love the Dead Head themed sukkahs! Specializing sukkahs is a great way to keep kids interested in Judaism. At least for me it was! Check out a post I just put up at the City of New York Graduate School of Journalism on Sukkot and rejoicing!…rvest-festival/

Sarah Tue. Oct 6, 2009

Insightful as always, Debra.

My Succah decor? Bare walls in my parents' succah, courtesy of pre-yom-tov rush to get the shopping and cooking done and kids taken care of. Sigh. (I tried to get my daughter to make some decorations, but she had other ideas.)

Perhaps we should cover some sefarim in plastic and bring them out. :)

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