According to the book of Numbers, for 40 years Moses and the 603,550 men (not to mention women, children and other hangers-on), wandered the Sinai Desert, homeless, erecting temporary huts — sukkahs — on their way from Egypt to Israel. Some say that number is awfully high, and can’t possibly be accurate, but numbers are hard to pin down.
Over 3,000 years later (again, it depends on when you decide to date the Exodus from Egypt — anywhere from 1300 BCE to 600 BCE), Jews the world over experience a solidarity with their ancestors by building their own sukkahs and dwelling in them (kind of) for eight days. Seven days if you live in Israel. In New York City, which boasts the largest Jewish population (from 1.2 million, to 1.5 million or perhaps 1.7 million, numbers are imprecise things) in the world outside of Israel, that’s a heck of a lot of sukkahs!
For sure, not all Jews in New York City are constructing modern-day cabanas on their property, but the holiday seems to have become increasingly popular and more visible in New York. On sidewalks in front of kosher restaurants in Midtown Manhattan are sukkahs that can hold 20-plus customers, while private sukkahs reign on terraces overlooking Central Park for a cozy group of 10. Synagogue and community sukkahs from Rego Park to Ocean Parkway accommodate 40 to 70 people, while enormous Chabad-sponsored sukkahs can squeeze in 150 to 200 people, for a blessing and a bite.
How many sukkahs? Impossible to quantify, but Sukkah Depot, based in New York and an online purveyor of sukkahs, has distributed 500,000 sukkahs worldwide in more than 30 years in business.
But a hut is not a home without a tapestry or a pin up poster of rabbis with long white beards to adorn its walls. Or is it?
Modern sukkah decorations, like garlands of plastic fruit, shiny foil stars, and strings of colored lights are the source countless heated arguments, which entail considerable waving of the arms and shrugging of the shoulders. Is hanging silver and gold tinsel from the bamboo-poled ceilings too Christmas-like, too goyish; is it just a little schlocky but kosher? It’s a question that would give Rabbi Gamaliel pause.
Sukkot brings with it a run on citrons, not something that’s otherwise in high demand. The citron along with the lulav (the date palm, three myrtle twigs and two willow branches), are the Four Species Jews make blessings over in the sukkah during the holiday, facing six directions, east, south, west, north, above and below. (Yes, even blessings are numbered.) But say you forgot to bring your lulav and etrog with when you left for work that morning? Chabad in Bryant Park, conveniently located blocks from Grand Central Station, Penn Station and Port Authority, where tens of thousands of people pass through every day, makes it easy should any of those commuters, or anyone else nearby, want to stop, shake a lulav and enjoy their own brown bag lunch within the sukkah.
Meanwhile, there are sukkahs that serve a perhaps less lofty purpose. That is, just to be. To enjoy. To serve as a conduit so that Jews might meet one another. Kind of like a matchmaker. But not really. They call it the Sukkah Hop. Hopping from one sukkah to another, having some potato nik on the Lower East Side and tasting a flavorful sambusak in a Syrian sukkah in Brooklyn in the hopes of meeting someone. Sukkot as a matchmaking service dates back to the first Temple — which was dedicated during Sukkot — when Sukkot was the largest of the three religious pilgrimages. Jews from all over Israel descended upon Jerusalem for seven days, and surely there must be someone in that throng of thousands who was potential marriage material.
Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, now New York, in September 1654, 359 years ago, bringing with them a Torah. Twenty-three Sephardi Jews fled Brazil after Portugal conquered it, and who can blame them? They were met in New York by two Ashkenazi Jews, and it would be curious to know what they did for Sukkot, which landed on Oct. 1 that year. One could argue that escaping Brazil and arriving in a foreign land whose Director-General Peter Stuyvesant tried to have you deported was Sukkot enough, as it was a visceral reminder of the displacement felt by those 600,000-plus souls who found themselves in that in-between, neither-here-nor-there transitional space of the Sinai, where they were dependent upon God to protect and provide.
Today, Jews are spread out over at least 75 countries, and their customs vary accordingly. But numbers — the most, the least, the oldest — by no means define who we are. There is one thing that all of these communities have in common: the Torah, given to the Jews in the Sinai during that same 40 years, according to tradition. A book that’s traversed time and borders, the Torah is the passport into the Jewish world. It is celebrated on its own holiday, Simchat Torah, immediately following Sukkot in New York City, in the same manner as it is everywhere, and has been for a long time: with the Torah passed from person to person, while others dance and sing around it. The last verse of Deuteronomy is read aloud, and then the annual Torah reading cycle begins anew with Genesis: In the beginning. Back to our common origin, wherever we might be now. We begin again. Adept at starting over.