Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot was the hardest to celebrate in space. Rabbi Greenberg had been a young child when her family boarded the generation ship, but she still had vivid memories of celebrating Sukkot back on Earth. The swish-snap of the tall, skinny lulav as she shook it back and forth, its flat green leaves packed tightly against its spine. The tangy-sweet smell of the bumpy yellow etrog, a bit too round for her little hands to hold securely.
The sukkah that her family built behind their house every year, with its thin metal frame, and its canvas walls, and its ceiling of bamboo slats and cut branches. The pride she’d felt when her father finally allowed her to help him assemble it, collecting branches for the roof or fastening the ties that secured the walls. It let in the cold, the heat, the rain, but also the sunlight that dappled every surface as her family sat inside to eat together.
The acid tang in the air that last Sukkot, the way the colors looked all wrong, as the world began to die around them.
They boarded the ship a week later. They left the sukkah standing when they fled. There wasn’t any way to bring it with them.
Now, on the ship, the Jewish community still built a sukkah every year. It was supposed to be built outdoors, but her predecessor, Rabbi Shapiro, had ruled that the high ceiling in the park sector could be considered sky. But despite the many light screens that covered its surface, it had no clouds, no moon, no stars. The sukkah they built in the park might be kosher, but to Rabbi Greenberg it could only ever be a shadow of the one her family had left behind. And the Jewish community onboard the ship was small, only five hundred out of half a million. They had no say in which plants were cultivated. There was no way at all to get a lulav and etrog.
So Sukkot was always hard on the ship.
And this year was going to be even harder.
Rabbi Greenberg sighed as she considered the pile of broken branches, bent metal poles, and half-shredded cloth that had, just this morning, been her community’s only sukkah. She’d been furious when she first found it, but now she mostly felt exhausted.
The holiday would begin in just a few hours. The community had neither the time nor the resources to build a new sukkah, and this one was ruined beyond any hope of repair. Her students had been thorough in their destruction.
If ship security hadn’t shown her the video, she never would have believed it: Ellie, Karen, and Laura, cheering and laughing as they sliced walls, bent poles, and snapped every branch. Over the past few years, she’d watched all three of them grow into responsible, conscientious young adults. She would never have expected behavior like this from any of them.
She knew that teens didn’t always make the best choices. When she’d been their age, her anger had gotten out of control more than once. But she couldn’t imagine her teenage self ever damaging something so precious, let alone destroying it. If anything, she would have been angry that the sukkah wasn’t good enough. Forget tearing it down; she would’ve been shouting in people’s faces about ways to make it better.
Then again, life had been so different when she was that age. Everyone around her had been scrambling to hold onto even the smallest remnants of what they’d been forced to leave behind on Earth. So her students’ actions made no sense to her at all, and that bothered her even more than the destruction. “Why did you do this?” she asked them.
In response, Ellie stared intently at their feet. Laura scowled in defiance.
“It wasn’t us!” Karen blurted out. She looked like she was about to say more, but Laura swatted her shoulder.
“She knows it was,” Laura hissed into Karen’s ear. Then, she turned to Rabbi Greenberg. “And none of us care.”
“I do,” Ellie muttered under their breath, and Rabbi Greenberg felt a brief flash of hope.
“Ellie?” she asked. “What happened?”
But they only shrugged and kicked gently at the turf with the toe of their boot.
“Karen?” She felt bad pressing Karen, who was practically in tears, but she needed to understand what had gone so wrong.
“It’s nothing,” Karen mumbled. “It’s stupid. It’s…”
“Shut up!” Laura snapped at her, and Karen wasn’t the only one who jumped.
Rabbi Greenberg turned her attention to Laura. “Why did you do it?”
“Because we felt like it.” Laura’s eyes burned in challenge.
Rabbi Greenberg didn’t back down. “I’m going to need a better answer than that.”
Rabbi Greenberg’s calm snapped as surely as the broken branches, and her next words came out cold and sharp. “You can answer me, or you can answer security. Take your pick, but I’m through with waiting.”
In response, Laura surged forward, and Ellie had to grab her upper arm to pull her back. “Because it’s stupid!” Laura shouted. “This entire holiday is stupid!” With those words, she yanked her arm free of Ellie’s grip and stormed off.
Rabbi Greenberg opened her mouth to call Laura back, but she couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would get Laura to turn around. She could follow through on her threat to call security, but what good could that possibly accomplish?
So she turned back to Karen and Ellie instead. “Does one of you want to tell me what happened?”
She let the question hang in the air between them until Karen finally chose to break the silence. “There’s a tournament. V-Games. And our team qualified.” The briefest of grins lit up her face.
“It’s a really big deal,” Ellie added. “Shipwide finals.”
“And?” Rabbi Greenberg prompted. How did that relate to Sukkot?
“And the preliminary rounds are tonight,” Ellie answered.
Tonight. When all three of them would be expected at the communal dinner in the sukkah.
God. Didn’t anyone look at a calendar anymore?
“I can talk to the organizers,” Rabbi Greenberg began, but Ellie cut her off.
“You think we didn’t try?”
Rabbi Greenberg’s eyebrows rose. They’d already spoken to the organizers? A swell of pride cut through her exhaustion. But… “What did they say?”
“They wouldn’t change the schedule. They said we have to choose what matters more.”
Disappointment formed a knot in Rabbi Greenberg’s gut. “You chose the competition.”
Ellie looked away as they nodded.
“But why did you destroy the sukkah? Why not just skip the meal?”
“We needed to get permission from our parents,” they answered. “Laura’s said no.”
• • •
It took some time to track Laura down—time that Rabbi Greenberg probably should have spent figuring out how the community was going to celebrate Sukkot without a sukkah. Somehow, finding Laura felt more important.
She wasn’t in any of the places where Rabbi Greenberg would have expected to find her: the teen center, her family’s apartment, the V-lounge. Then Rabbi Greenberg remembered where Laura interned. She made her way to the seed vault, a long, narrow corridor lined with column after column of tiny metal drawers, each with a different name etched into its face.
Laura was hard at work near the far end of the vault. She had opened one of the drawers and was wiping down its lid with a rag, her mouth pressed into a hard, thin line as she gave this basic task her full attention.
Rabbi Greenberg approached with caution, taking care to make her footsteps audible, moving slowly enough that Laura had plenty of time to notice she was there. When she finally reached Laura’s side, she stood over the drawer and waited.
“If you’re here for an apology,” Laura said, “you’re going to be disappointed.”
Rabbi Greenberg let Laura’s comment go without an answer. She didn’t need an apology. She needed to understand. Laura had good reason to be angry at her parents. Under the circumstances, Rabbi Greenberg would have expected her to shout at them until she was hoarse, or lock herself in her room. But tearing down an entire sukkah? There had to be more to this story.
If only she could get Laura to tell her.
“What are those?” she asked instead, gesturing toward the open drawer. Through the shatterproof window that Laura was cleaning, Rabbi Greenberg could see a scattered handful of seeds.
Laura tapped the front of the drawer, and Rabbi Greenberg read the words etched into its surface. ᴛᴀʀᴀxᴀᴄᴜᴍ ᴏꜰꜰɪᴄɪɴᴀʟᴇ. ᴅᴀɴᴅᴇʟɪᴏɴ. A wave of nostalgia made her breath catch. “I remember dandelions,” she said. They began with bright yellow petals, and then they’d get all feathery, like little bits of cloud. “We used to blow on them sometimes, just to see how many tufts would fly off.”
“Weren’t they weeds?” Laura asked.
“Sure, but they were fun.” Rabbi Greenberg ran a finger along the drawer’s edge. “I wouldn’t mind seeing one again.” She looked up at the seemingly endless columns of gleaming drawers. “There are a lot of plants I miss.” Lots of other things too. Like being able to eat in a real sukkah beneath an actual sky. Like holding a lulav and etrog in her hands.
An idea began to form in her mind.
“I wish you could see a real dandelion,” she said. “It’s a shame we don’t grow them on the ship.”
“No, it isn’t.” Laura gave the window one last swipe with her rag, and slid the drawer back into the wall. She opened the drawer above it with a double tap of her index finger, and resumed her cleaning. “Do you have any idea how many resources it takes to keep a weed from spreading everywhere?”
Rabbi Greenberg saw her opening. “What if resources didn’t matter?”
“If resources didn’t matter, which one would you plant?”
For a moment, Laura just stared at her, clearly confused. “Resources will always matter,” she finally answered.
It was hard for Rabbi Greenberg to not acknowledge the truth in those words as she tried to steer the conversation back on track. “I know which one I’d plant,” she said.
She didn’t even need to search for it in the directory. She’d opened this drawer so many times. She was surprised when Laura slid the second drawer shut without further prodding and followed her a few feet back down the corridor.
The drawer was labeled, ᴄɪᴛʀᴜꜱ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴄᴀ. ᴄɪᴛʀᴏɴ. Just reading the name was enough to call forth memories of a yellow, bumpy surface and a tangy-sweet aroma.
Inside the drawer sat three small seeds. She waited for Laura to understand.
But Laura reached around her and slammed the drawer shut. “We won’t be planting that one.”
Rabbi Greenberg winced. “Why not?”
“Because it’s useless.”
Rabbi Greenberg pressed a hand over the front of the drawer, as if she could protect the seeds from Laura’s disdain. “We shake it with the lulav.”
“You mean you shook it.”
The reminder stung like acid. “It still means something.”
“No. It doesn’t. Earth is gone. Sukkot is over! There’s no harvest here. There’s not even a sky. You’re making us celebrate things that don’t even exist!”
“They existed for me once,” Rabbi Greenberg answered. “They existed for your parents, and for theirs.” Even now, a deep longing formed a lump in her throat, and she struggled to swallow past it, desperate to make Laura understand. “Sukkot isn’t just about harvests. It’s about history. About our journey through the desert to reach the Promised Land. About living in temporary dwellings and putting our faith in God. Sukkot is still important. Our traditions are important. You can’t just go around making a wreck of them.”
“Why not?” Laura demanded. “Will your precious God get angry at us? The same God who let you ruin Earth so completely, you had to leave forever? If that’s who God is, I don’t want anything to do with them.”
“God gave us free will. We did that to ourselves.” The words rolled smoothly off Rabbi Greenberg’s tongue, as automatic as breathing—and never mind how many times she had asked the same questions. Why hadn’t God stopped them? Why hadn’t God saved them? Having those answers wouldn’t change what had happened.
“Yeah,” Laura said. “You did it to yourselves, and to your children, and to every generation after that. So what if we wrecked a stupid holiday? Your generation wrecked an entire planet!”
“We didn’t…” Rabbi Greenberg began, but Laura just talked right over her.
“Do you really want to know which ones I’d plant? Not a stupid etrog tree. Sequoias. Redwoods. Douglas firs. Trees that grow so tall, they just keep going up and up. And not a single one of them can ever be planted onboard this ship. I’ll never get to know what it’s like to stand beneath them. I’ll never look up at their branches spread out against the sky. Forget the trees. I’ll never get to see a sky! Instead, we’ll all just drift through space until the ship falls apart and everyone dies, and I’ll never get to see any of these!”
Laura’s voice caught as she threw her arms wide, encompassing the entire seed vault in her gesture. “Do you have any idea what that’s like? To know you’re going to spend your whole life just wandering through a void?”
Wandering through… “But that’s what Sukkot is all about. That’s…” Rabbi Greenberg stopped herself. Why should Laura care about the Israelites’ journey through the desert, or about how God led them to the Promised Land?
For Laura and her peers, there was no Promised Land. Their predecessors had destroyed their future as surely as she and her friends had destroyed the community sukkah. Why would anyone from Laura’s generation want to celebrate the very things they’d been deprived of?
“You’re right,” Rabbi Greenberg finally said. “And it isn’t fair.”
“No. It isn’t.” Laura turned away and started back toward the drawers she had been cleaning.
There had to be some way to help Laura connect to the holiday, a new ritual they could incorporate or a reframing of their current practices that would make the holiday feel relevant to Laura and her peers. But Rabbi Greenberg couldn’t even begin to imagine what Sukkot would feel like if she’d been born on the ship. She had no idea what would give the holiday meaning for those members of the community who had no memories of Earth.
There was an easy solution to that, though. “What can we add to Sukkot?” she asked Laura. “How can we make it more meaningful for you?”
Laura glanced back over her shoulder, but she didn’t answer right away. Instead, she stared off down the hall, twisting her rag between her fingers. Ever so slowly, the anger faded from her expression, and Rabbi Greenberg had just enough time to hope before Laura shook her head. “We shouldn’t have Sukkot at all.”
• • •
Rabbi Greenberg didn’t want to return to the park. She didn’t want to see the wreckage, didn’t want to face the reminder that the last tangible remnant of the Sukkot she knew and loved was really gone. But she was the rabbi, and her community was relying on her. So she dragged herself forward, one reluctant step at a time, until she reached the edge of the debris-strewn field.
As she crouched down to begin the cleanup, she tried to tell herself that the community would get through this. But when she wrapped her fingers around the nearest pole, bent and twisted beyond all further use, her vision blurred with tears. Her family’s sukkah had been built with poles just like this one. She could still remember how grown-up she’d felt when she helped her father secure the canvas to them with long, thin straps, the stitched-on Velcro rough beneath her fingers.
Through her tears, she considered the mess in front of her. Every scrap of canvas was another memory. Every broken pole was another severed tie to the past they’d left behind. The community sukkah that now lay in ruins all around her might have only been the faintest echo of the one she remembered from her childhood, but it had been better, at least, than no sukkah at all.
There had to be some way to build a new sukkah before tonight. Even a small one would be better than nothing. The community wouldn’t be able to fit inside all at once, but she’d make a schedule. Everyone would have a chance to use it. All she had to do was find a few poles that were still unbent and some scraps of canvas large enough to quickly sew together. But the more she searched, the clearer it became just how extensive the damage was. Not a single pole was straight enough to use. Not one scrap of cloth was larger than her hand.
A wave of anger surged through her, and she hurled a mangled pole across the field. It landed with a clang and a clatter, junk against junk. Her students had wrecked the sukkah so completely, there was nothing left to rebuild it with.
So we wrecked a stupid holiday. Your generation wrecked an entire planet.
As Rabbi Greenberg crouched there in the park, her empty hands clenching and unclenching against her knees, Laura’s words echoed sharply in the recesses of her mind. She wanted so badly to tell Laura she was wrong, needed so desperately to convince Laura that Sukkot was still relevant, even here. But the longer she sat there, staring at the wreckage, the harder it became to ignore the truth: Laura was absolutely right.
For Rabbi Greenberg, Sukkot was a chance to remember what she’d lost, but for Laura and her peers, it was a reminder of what had been stolen from them by previous generations. Laura’s ancestors had been blessed with a planet full of natural resources and endless beauty, and they’d pillaged and poisoned it without a second thought. Worse still, they’d known exactly what they were doing.
But, of course, when you lived a comfortable life, it was easier to keep traveling the same path, easier to assume that everything would continue to be just fine. Change meant admitting that you were doing something wrong. It meant a willingness to sacrifice and a sustained effort over time.
Even now, Laura suffered because the adults around her refused to change. The director of the V-Games. Laura’s parents.
Even Rabbi Greenberg.
She stared out across the wreckage and pressed her hands to the battered turf, feeling as wrung out as Laura’s cleaning rag, as all her anger bled away.
She didn’t want to change Sukkot. She’d lost so much of it already. She couldn’t stand to lose the sukkah, too. But Sukkot without community would be even worse. A Sukkot that died because no one cared enough to pass it on was no Sukkot at all, no matter how much it resembled the holiday she remembered. It didn’t matter how desperately she wanted to salvage it. Her Sukkot was over. It had been over since the day her family boarded the ship.
It hurt to even think it, like a knife digging in beneath her ribs. It hurt more to watch Laura turn away from God.
If Judaism was going to survive, it couldn’t remain stuck in the past, trying to recreate what Laura’s ancestors had destroyed so willfully and so completely. Jewish practice needed to account for how they lived now, and for the series of choices that had led them there.
And slowly, reluctantly, an idea came together in Rabbi Greenberg’s mind.
• • •
Rows of chairs and benches filled the empty space where the sukkah should have been, and nearly every seat was occupied. It felt like the entire community was staring up at her, waiting for her to fix their holiday.
Rabbi Greenberg had to swallow past a tightness in her throat before she was able to speak. “Sukkot is a time of vulnerability,” she began. “We place ourselves out in the open, dwelling in a flimsy, temporary structure, and we ask God to protect us from harm.
“This year, we lost our community sukkah, but here, on the ship, every day is Sukkot, with only a few thin bulkheads between us and the deadly void of space.”
She paused to take a deep, steadying breath before she continued. The next words were the ones that mattered most. “But it wasn’t God who put us on this ship. It wasn’t God who ruined Earth. It was people. And it’s time we made a space to properly acknowledge that, a space to learn from our mistakes.”
As she spoke, she scanned the congregation, meeting the gazes of as many members of the community as possible, but searching for one pair of eyes in particular. “So this year, and for all the years to come, instead of glorifying what we ourselves destroyed, let’s observe Sukkot by remembering how we lost it. Let’s celebrate it by making plans to safeguard what remains. Let’s do this for ourselves and for all our future generations.”
As animated conversations bubbled up across the field, she finally found Laura at the back of the crowd, standing at the very edge of the meeting space, as if she hadn’t yet decided whether she was even there at all. Laura stared back at her, expression unreadable. Then she inclined her head in the barest hint of a nod.
As the hum of conversation grew to a roar, Rabbi Greenberg felt something loosen inside her chest. An almost giddy anticipation rose up from somewhere deep inside her, and she was surprised to realize that she genuinely wanted to give this new Sukkot a try.
Sukkot this year would still be hard as they traded ritual for remembrance. But maybe the act of recalling those practices would become a ritual of its own. Maybe learning from their loss would give the holiday a new and deeper meaning, one that would sustain it for many generations to come. Maybe they would cherish it the way she’d cherished her family’s sukkah back on Earth, with its canvas walls and its roof of branches, and the dappled sunlight that sometimes filled it, bright and warm against her skin.