By any reasonable criterion, our sukkah is problematic. It’s weird looking, for one thing. A pre-fab thingamabobby of aluminum tubes, bungee cords and army-green canvas, it couldn’t be more unlike its surroundings, which are some lovely old cottages in the woods. It looks like Buckminster Fuller went to work on an architectural experiment in the middle of an English forest, then wandered off before he was done.
Our sukkah is also a ridiculously long way away: 112 miles from New York City, where we usually live, which means that my husband and children and I sit in our sukkah only on weekends and the holy days, when the children are out of school.
Worst of all, our sukkah is in the totally wrong social context. I’m pretty sure we’re the only people ever to have built a sukkah in the Catskills summer colony where we winterized a house three years ago. Don’t laugh: These are not your grandparents’ Catskills. The Borscht Belt lies an hour south and west of us, in the foothills of Sullivan County.
Our house is in the northeastern Catskills, where tony 19th-century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat in exclusive mountaintop hotels and communities, gazing at views made famous by the painters of the Hudson River School. By exclusive, of course, I mean that until a few generations ago, Jews were not welcome in most summer communities around here, including ours. There aren’t many Jews there now. Indeed, every Sukkot we get to practice a faintly Seinfeld-esque routine we developed the first time we put up a sukkah here. In it, we tell the few but inevitably astonished passers-by — there aren’t many people left up here by October — that God wants Jews to sit in little wooden booths.
So why build our sukkah in this lonely place? I ask myself that question every Sukkot as I shiver through dinner, chilled by the cold mountain air but also by the eerie sound of trees groaning in the forest. There’s an obvious answer: we can’t build one in Manhattan. But there’s also a less obvious one. I like to think that our incongruous sukkah embodies both our commitment to a Jewish life and how strangely difficult it is for us to live up to that commitment. And that that convoluted complexity is just what a sukkah is meant to reflect.
I have never been quite so happy while perusing Jewish sources as I was when I came across a single word in Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s meditation on Sukkot in “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.” He is answering the question of why we dwell in booths in the fall, when it’s unpleasant to sit outside, rather than in the spring, when it’s balmy. “Maimonides and Jacob ben Asher,” says Greenberg, “explain that the Sukkot celebration was deliberately scheduled during an ‘inappropriate’ season” in order to recreate the hardships of Exodus. “Inappropriate,” I thought. “What a brilliant translation!” Sukkot is the holiday of inappropriateness; it’s our annual celebration of this highly Jewish quality. If Sukkot weren’t inappropriate, it wouldn’t be uncomfortable. And if it weren’t uncomfortable, it wouldn’t help us re-experience the radical disjunctions of wandering in the desert.
I don’t mean to equate building a sukkah in a second home in the Catskills with stumbling hungry and scared around the Sinai Peninsula for four decades. Except that I do. You have to take your spiritual promptings where you can find them. Being cold; feeling out of place; having had to put in more effort than seems reasonable; longing to be within the embrace of community, rather than out in the wilderness: these are all aspects of exile, whether the condition has been forced upon you by external circumstances or you’ve imposed it on yourself for reasons all your own. I wouldn’t wish our sukkah on our friends or our enemies, but it works well enough for us.
Judith Shulevitz is author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and a New York Times 100 Notable Books for 2010.