When it comes to hardware stores, you can count me as a One-Day-A-Year Jew — and that day occurs just before the holiday of Sukkot, when I focus on putting up our family sukkah in the backyard. Thank God it only has to stand for eight days.
Part of the wonderful rhythm of the High Holy Days season is that we go directly from the cerebral solemnity of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to the hands-on, harvest-inspired, outdoor-focused festival of Sukkot, recalling the wanderings of the ancient Israelites in the desert those 40 long years.
Over the years, as I make my annual pilgrimage to the hardware store in search of wooden beams and the proper brackets and mollies to make sure the sukkah is secure, I imagine the Lord smiling, as if to say, “That’s right, you need some balance in your life, you need to be in touch with nature, so get out there and sweat a little.”
Indeed, rather than continue to focus on our innermost thoughts and deeds, on Sukkot we are commanded to get outside — to step outside of ourselves by stepping out of our homes, eating our meals in temporary booths for eight days and nights. And we’re required to dwell in a sukkah whose very roof — known as schach and made from organic material like bamboo — is protective, yet porous enough to let sunlight in during the day and to reveal the stars at night.
Surely the point is to think about how fragile our existence is, and how remarkable that the Jewish people have survived for thousands of years.
We see our breath on cold nights and feel the rain come through at times, reminding us of our humble place in this vast world and how vulnerable we are to Divine Nature.
Every sukkah has a story. Some guys remember fondly every car they’ve owned. I can get misty about every sukkah in my life, dating back to the one we had on our tiny back porch when I was growing up in Annapolis, Md. Even though there was barely room for a card table and four chairs inside its wooden walls, my non-Jewish friends in the neighborhood loved playing in my “fort” and no doubt begged their fathers to build them one, too. The first sukkah I built myself was a disaster. It was made out of canvas, which I bought from a boating store within walking distance of the Baltimore harbor. When the elderly, leather-skinned salesman in the fisherman’s cap asked me the size of my jib, I was ready to call a cop. I tried to explain that the canvas I was interested in wasn’t actually for my boat but for the “ritual booth” I was building in my backyard. That’s when it looked like he was going to call a cop. We came to some sort of understanding, finally, but a strong storm on the first night of the holiday left our sukkah looking like the Titanic. We had to eat our meals in friends’ sukkahs that year.
After that fiasco, I was smart enough to commission my cousin, who later became an engineer, to build us a sturdy wooden sukkah that lasted at least 15 years. During that time, we enjoyed the social and communal benefits of inviting friends and family for holiday meals in the sukkah.
As time passed and our children grew and left home, those solid eight-foot wooden walls were tougher to put up alone, and I engaged a patient and talented handyman who helped convince me to buy a simpler, do-it-yourself sukkah that doesn’t require a degree in physics to assemble.
He does most of the assembling, and when our kids, and now grandkids, come home for the holiday, they help my wife and me put up the schach and decorations, making this still a family affair.
After all, that’s what Sukkot is all about, with God instructing that we live in booths “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 23: 42-43).
Along with memory there is mysticism. A charming Sukkot custom is the recitation each evening of Ushpizin (“guests”), in which we symbolically welcome into our sukkah one of seven illustrious visitors: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David.
Echoing the Passover seder ritual of opening the door for Elijah, we blend past and present in seeking to ensure the future.
As we sit in the sukkah this week, my family feels the presence, as well, of loved ones who are no longer with us, with whom we’ve shared so many holidays and whose influence on our lives still shines as clearly as the stars above us. Those remembrances cause us to sit a bit closer, raise our voices in song a bit louder and appreciate sharing a tradition as old as our people.
Gary@jewishweek.org. Portions of this column were adapted from my 1994 Sukkot column.