Seattle’s climate is changing, and so are our (cough, hack) Jewish rituals


Hannah S. Pressman | JTA

People in Seattle praying for rain — only something that happens on Opposite Day, right?


Admittedly, the rain jokes write themselves, but there is no humor to be found in this situation: The Pacific Northwest found itself desperately hoping for precipitation over the past several weeks. Seattle’s hottest summer ever on record extended into a toasty October with regional temperatures in the 80s, something previously unheard of.

The Tacoma News Tribune wrote we were experiencing the driest October since the 1940s. The Bolt Creek Fire, which erupted in early September near Skyhomish, has been burning for more than a month and tarnishing Western Washington with unhealthy smoke levels for days on end.

This fall for a couple of days, the website IQAir reported that Seattle’s air quality was the worst on the planet.

So, yes, Seattle has been praying for rain; in the era of extreme weather events, ironies abound.

Years of severe drought up and down the West Coast have laid the groundwork, literally, for wildfires to spread and affect increasingly large areas, disrupting daily life on an unprecedented level for people in this part of the country. Despite media coverage, I am not sure how much our lived reality has penetrated the awareness of people outside this region. As a Puget Sound resident for the last 15 years, I’ve watched the news follow a certain pattern: local reporting, often followed by national reporting; a drop-off in national coverage as the crisis lingers in affected geographical locales; and then an occasional swerve into arguments for or against the existence of global warming, forest mismanagement or whatever other polarizing issue is on the table.

And while raging flames become an opportunity for raging voices, real-time human suffering is ignored.

I am not an environmental scientist, so I cannot prove or disprove whatever theories the recent wildfires are supposed to uphold. What I can provide is testimony about living through this moment and its impact on my Jewish holiday observance.

I can tell you all about erecting a sukkah during the High Holidays and staying outside just long enough to make a quick Kiddush and say the blessing “Leishev BaSukkah,” which expresses the commandment to sit in the temporary huts that are the enterprise of the
Sukkot holiday.

This year we may have fudged a little on the halachic requirements for making that blessing because the air smelled so terrible that we scurried back inside to eat
our meal.

I can describe my 5-year-old daughter patting the air purifier in my bedroom, trying to appease it whenever its red light indicated that it had detected something toxic in the air. “You’ll be OK,” she reassured the machine (simultaneously not reassuring me at all). She brought the purifier things to help it feel better, like a blanket and Laurie Berkner’s recording of “All the Pretty Little Horses” — a child’s offerings to an angry god.

A Sukkot week with only one or two days of moderate-enough air quality to spend time in the sukkah really didn’t feel like z’man simchateinu, the “season of our rejoicing.”

When the skies appear apocalyptic, when ash rains down on you from a mountain burning miles away, how can you make the spiritual pilgrimage that our High Holidays require?

Which brings me back to the prayer that is added to the daily Amidah prayer on the last day of Sukkot: Mashiv haruach umorid hageshem — the Jewish prayer for wind and rain.

This year, looking at that line, I felt a convergence of my current reality with the liturgy and language of my ancestors. For Jews, this appeal to the One who can make the wind return and the rain fall is invoked from the end of Sukkot until the beginning of Passover. After the smokiest Sukkot in memory — a frustrating and frightening week of diminished rather than increased joy — I think everyone in this corner of the country was crying out for wind and rain to relieve us of the unbreathable, unthinkable air that had refused to budge for so long.

Shortly after the end of the Jewish holidays this year, I dressed my daughter in rain pants and boots based on weather predictions. Like my fellow Seattleites, I walked out the door hoping against hope that it would finally be the day to break the dry spell and drive away the cursed smoke.

And lo, as we got in the car, the first spattering of rain in weeks began to softly descend. We drove to school with the windows down, reveling in the rain that began to fall more steadily and insistently. My daughter laughed and shouted a prayer of thanks towards the heavens: “Thank you, rain, for getting the smoke away!”

Our air and our sky have been returned to us. Let us rejoice … for now.

Hannah S. Pressman is director of education and engagement for the Jewish Language Project. (See:

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