There were so many reasons we were looking for a house. For starters, our rambunctious young sons and their toys had outgrown our two-bedroom apartment. We needed a guest room for visiting family and a dining room for Shabbos meals with friends. There were other things a house would bless us with, treasures we would discover only later. But in the beginning, what we wanted most from a house was the swath of grass it sat on.
We kissed a lot of frogs during the housing bubble, and when we found our less-than-handsome prince — a three-bedroom split-level fixer-upper — I wondered how we would make it livable. Sensing my panic, my husband led me to the back window, where he pointed to the weed-covered expanse and said, “Forget the house. Just look at that yard!”
He envisioned leaf piles and snowmen, soccer goals at each end, and, of course, the annual addition of a sukkah. During our tenure as apartment dwellers, we had relied every Sukkot on the hospitality of others. Now, we could welcome guests into a sukkah of our own.
Months later, the inside of the house was presentable — the asbestos eradicated, the plumbing replaced, and the electricity up to code. The kitchen had working appliances. The walls wore fresh coats of blue. We affixed mezuzot to the doorposts and moved in, finally calling this house our home.
When our first Sukkot as homeowners approached, my husband designed a simple sukkah, though its construction still required multiple outings to Home Depot and complicated machinations with PVC. Wood beams followed, then a bamboo roof, tarp walls, and decorative greenery. It was makeshift yet sturdy, and to us it was a palace. With childlike wonder, I would sit in it late at night, hypnotized by the strings of tiny lights as they flickered on and off.
One year, while my crew was outside assembling the sukkah, I received a phone call. Hoping for strength in numbers, a group of women were planning to gather for the recitation of Sefer Tehillim, the Book of Psalms, to pray for the speedy recovery of an ailing young mother in the community.
Of course, I’ll come, I promised. When? Where?
It took me a minute to process that the caller was asking me to host. I couldn’t understand why. Ours was certainly not the biggest house. While I had attended Tehillim gatherings before, I had never organized one. Surely, I thought, someone with more room, seating, and expertise should do so instead. And yet, I said, Sure.
It was that time of year when everyone is extra busy, with holiday preparations piled atop other life and work obligations. But I made calls and friends made calls, and at the precise hour, our house began to fill up. Women I knew and women I did not recognize sat on every chair, the steps, the arms of the couch. They squeezed into corners and leaned against the refrigerator. I could have sworn the walls had stretched, expanding their maximum capacity.
Despite our time in the house, we still had not scheduled a formal hanukat habayit, a dedication ceremony to imbue our home with an element of the sacred. But on that night, as I looked around me, awed by the power of community and the faith with which those women prayed, I knew this gathering was the dedication we’d been waiting for.
Lately, I’ve been listing in my head the many blessings the house has given us — the ones we hoped for and the ones that took us by surprise, the ones we found indoors and the ones that awaited us outside. I gaze now out our back window, admiring the same sukkah we built our first year here, a simple hut infused with the blessings of our guests and the spirits of those we invoke when we sit down at the table. As Jews, it is our charge to do just that: to elevate the ordinary, to bring holiness into our midst.
There is still magic when the sukkah lights come on. As they flicker, like stars igniting the sky, they remind me not only of life’s impermanence, but also its essential, sacred beauty. It is everywhere, even in the humblest of places. We just have to take notice.
Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space.