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Moon-viewing: An Aesthetic for Tsukimi and Sukkot

Michele Kriegman
Sources: manuscript, 1995. An addendum to published article,
'The Jews and the Chinese: Reaching for the Moon', Moment, 10: 32-33.

Both Jews and East Asians eat sympathetically round foods during their moon festivals. In some parts of China a rose incense is used to scent round fruits like melons and pomegranates. But the specialty of the holiday is mooncakes. These are usually round and decorated with reliefs of cassia trees, the Jade Rabbit, the Moon Lady or the mythical three-legged toad associated with the moon and tides. Depending on the region, mooncake dough can be either moist and browned or a flaky crust surrounding any one of about thirty fillings: melon seeds, orange peel, cassia blooms, walnuts, date paste, crushed red beans, egg yolk, coconut, lotus seed paste, etcetera. Our family usually buys mooncakes with yellow yolks suspended like the moon in a surrounding of deep red bean paste.

On the verandah of a traditional East Asian home or teahouse, seven grasses are placed in a vase next to a neatly arranged tray of round, white rice balls. The moonlight dances off the silken tassels of the grasses and lends the rice balls a pale luminescence. There is more than a hint of the Hebrew lulav and round etrog in the silhouette of this nocturnal still-life; both the ancient Middle Eastern rite of beating willows, practiced at Sukkoth in the days of the Temple, and the Asian practice of offering seed-laden grasses have been tied to prehistoric fertility cults.

In Japan, the Moon Festival is less a family event than the Jewish celebration and more an aesthetic occasion. Its name is tsukimi or Moon Viewing. While the bible mandates that a sukkah, or tabernacle, for celebrating Sukkoth, or the Festival of Booths, allow for a view of the moon, in Asia this aesthetic gesture is taken further. In all landscaping gardens are oriented eastward in the direction of the moonrise and the sunrise. The perfect moment that everyone awaits during the Moon Festival is when the moon is high enough for the assembled party to see the moon reflected in their teacups. In China, and classical Japan, families who lived near lakes would rent teahouse-boats where they could feast until the moon rose high enough to be reflected in the water below.

Some of the most repeated passages of Japanese literature are reflections on a Moon Viewing. Here is one from the 17th century masterpiece Essays in Idleness by the famous essayist, Kenko:

The moon that appears close to dawn after we have long waited for it moves us more profoundly than the full moon shining cloudless over a thousand leagues. And how incomparably lovely is the moon , almost greenish in its light, when seen through the tops of cedars deep in the mountains, or when it hides for a moment behind clustering clouds during a sudden shower! The sparkle on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with moonlight strikes one to the heart.

This next passage, also from Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, fits the mood of the Eighth Day of Assembly, Shemini Atzeret, at the end of Sukkot:

Winter decay is hardly less beautiful than autumn. Crimson leaves lie scattered on the grass beside the ponds, and how delightful it is on a morning when the frost is very white to see the vapor rise from a garden stream. At the end of the year it is indescribably moving to see everyone hurrying about on errands. There is something forlorn about the waning winter moon, shining cold and clear in the sky, unwatched because it is said to be depressing.

In Kyoto, the classical capital of Japan, there is a famous 15th century shrine designed for Moon Viewing. The Silver Pavilion, or Ginkakuji, is a three-story building commissioned by a retired Shogun as the partner to the Golden Pavillion, or Kinkakuji, built 92 years earlier. However, the intervening 92 years were marked by constant warfare that left Kyoto a burnt wasteland. Whereas the Golden Pavilion is is surrounded by an extensive artificial pond and sheathed entirely in real gold leaf, the Silver Pavilion is a plainer wood and plaster structure; the Shogun’s coffers were exhausted before he could have it completed in silver leaf as planned. Instead it is known for the small garden of sand that faces it. The grains of sand are raked into a pattern of waves that lap against a miniature mountain. Dull and colorless in the daytime, this curious landscape glistens under the rays of the moon.

This garden that served as a retreat for the retired Shogun brings to mind a leitmotif of Japanese drama and poetry, “the moon of exile.” The moon of exile refers to the loneliness of the exiled hero who is filled with nostalgia at the sight of the full moon, evoking the full moons he saw in the bustling capital.

Did the ancient Hebrews, wandering in the sands of the Sinai under the rays of the moon, feel occasionally the same longing for the familiarity and fleshpots of cosmopolitan Egypt?

 

A Suggested Reading List:

Non-fiction

Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars, translated, compiled and edited by Sidney Shapiro

Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries: the Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire by Michael Pollack.

Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China by Carol Stapanchuk and Charles Wong.

 

Fiction

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok. A young Jewish chaplain’s coming of age in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.

Peony by Pearl S. Buck. The saga of a Chinese Jewish family in 18th century Kaifeng, China.

 

Read-Aloud

The Moon Lady by Amy Tan

Red Eggs and Dragon Boats: Celebrating Chinese Festivals by Carol Stepanchuk

Yiddish Folktales edited by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich

 

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