Sukkot, the Abstract, and the Autistic Child

So, the year rolls on, and Sukkot starts at the end of the week. As an apartment dweller, and a not traditionally-observant Jew, Sukkot is an interesting holiday. Put on top of that parenting an autistic child, and this is a real puzzle.

I’ve mentioned in a prior post that the existing community structures for Jewish education just don’t work for our family. This is partially because we are members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and are not members of a synagogue locally (there’s no affiliated congregation here…yet), in part because for various reasons we don’t wish to avail ourselves of the community’s Bureau of Jewish Education, and in part because there just aren’t community resources that can do Jewish education for our son given how his autism…er…expresses itself.

So that puts his Jewish education on our shoulders. One of the big problems with trying to educate a lot of autistic children is that abstractions and discussion of things not present can be very difficult. In some ways, a child with autism can be the most absolute skeptic. So, he knows Shabbat and learned a bit of Havdalah this past weekend: candles are always a big draw for him. And even the abstract idea of resting on Shabbat makes sense–after all, he doesn’t go to school (though he does sometimes have therapy on Saturday), and Daddy doesn’t go to work.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? I’m still working those out. It doesn’t help that he won’t eat challah or honey. He likes apples from time to time. But Yom Kippur? That’s a tough nut to crack.

So, too, Sukkot. We’re not going to build a sukkah, in part because we don’t own our home, in part because I’m straight-up bad with building things (I’ve actually broken a porcelain toilet by over-tightening a bolt while attempting to replace a seal–BTW, cracked porcelain = SHARP!!!!), and in part because with work, taking care of our son, and taking care of my wife’s parents, we wouldn’t have time to get a sukkah built.

And even so, suppose I built a sukkah, or we visited one. What, exactly, is the explanation that sticks for him? “Sukkot is like Shabbat, but sometimes it’s not on Fridays, and it’s about when the Bible says the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. But really, it’s a harvest holiday. And also, here’s a hut that the Israelites didn’t really sit in. Because, historically, probably not.”

We have had a little success teaching Hebrew: he knows Shalom and Shabbat Shalom, of course; we learned Shavua Tov last week during Havdalah; and we’ve learned apple (tapuach), orange (tapuz), and pear (agas). I tried watermelon (abatiach), but he wasn’t paying attention anymore.

Here’s what he knows about the Israelites: they are vegetables. Joshua is a cucumber. David is a little asparagus, and Goliath is a big pickle. Abraham is a grape. (I am now going to stop linking to VeggieTales videos.) So is Jacob. Joseph is a cucumber–the same one as Joshua. Moses is a cucumber, too–the one as Joseph and Joshua. Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar are both the same zucchini; his henchman is always a small, Latino gourd. Oh, and God has something to do with all this, but of course it’s a Christian version of God.

Why, yes, I do kick myself for introducing him to VeggieTales, though to be fair, I wasn’t thinking too hard about the theological fallout of that when I did so. He was two, after all.

We’re working on it.

If you asked me fourteen years ago, when I was starting graduate school in religious studies, whether I would be doing child education in Judaism, I would have laughed at you.

Boy was I stupid.