October 26, 2011
Blame it on Shalom Sesame. Building a sukkah in our front yard this year became an imperative after our 3-year-old saw a Sesame Street video called Monsters in the Sukkah.
Neither my husband nor I had childhood memories of Sukkot. As adults and as parents, we had been in temple and friends’ sukkahs. But building a sukkah of our own? It seemed daunting even as I wanted to continue to make Judaism a natural, fun part of our family’s life. To my husband, building a sukkah sounded like a wonderful idea even though we would have to construct it as both of us were juggling new jobs and I was dealing with a new back problem. Not to mention, our 3-year-old specifically asked for a sukkah this year. We could not say no.
Building a sukkah taught us lessons about communication as a couple. It reminded us of the importance of making our child feel included even if it means slowing up a project. It showed us, too, something we already knew: how better life is when we take the time to build something as a family and with friends.
The construction of our sukkah also gave me a glimpse into the future as my husband showed our young son how to hold a screw driver, how to use his hands to make something out of almost nothing. Some day, our son may be the one leading the construction rather than just asking for it.
My husband Pavlik ordered a sukkah kit, essentially a bunch of brackets, screws, bolts, and nails, and had wood delivered for a sukkah big enough to hold our largest outdoors table. Everything arrived and sat in our garage as Sukkot approached. My husband asked when we planned to get started. And he wondered, had I looked into material for the walls? I looked at him questioningly. I didn’t realize the start date was a mutual decision. He was the handyman. This, he reminded me, was a family project.
The next day, I went into high gear. Taking Simon with me, I bought rolls of burlap for the walls at a hardware store. Then, I dumped the rolls in our dining room. My husband began assembling the boards in our garage and Simon tagged along to ‘help’. I dubbed myself official Sukkot photographer.
As Sukkot drew nearer, my husband asked when I was going to start on the walls. I had a deadline looming for an article. My neck and shoulder ached. Work on the walls? My husband informed me that part of providing the wall covering was actually cutting the burlap. Oh. I began cutting sheets of burlap, carefully measuring each piece, trying to be perfect. I did not realize that a sukkah by its very nature did not have to be perfectly measured. Pavlik told me it was okay to hit the approximate length. A sukkah is supposed to be a temporary shelter like the ones Moses and the Jews wandering in the desert would have constructed during their 40-year trek. They did not have rulers. I cut and I conquered. That night, my husband came home from work and used a staple gun to erect the walls.
Shoving my own work to the side one morning, I picked up bunches of corn stalks and then hiked in our woods with Simon to hunt for leafy branches for the roof. Our sukkah had a roof hours before the sun set, marking the beginning of Sukkot. A friend and her daughter came to make some of the first decorations.
We hung gourds, pine cones, and corn from the roof beams, and our sukkah, for the most part was complete. It was not laden with decorations like ones we have seen. But it looked and felt like a sukkah. We could look up and see the sky. We could smell the scents of nature, of pine needles, damp leaves, and grass.
We had friends over several days after Sukkot began. The three children, working with us, made another decoration – a white banner of their hand prints. One of the mothers painted a flower pot with stems to hold the hand prints. I found the idea by googling sukkot decorations on the web. As our get-together ended, the children insisted on a game of Ring Around the Rosie. We ran around in circles a few feet away from our sukkah.
A few days later, I picked Simon up from preschool and he wanted to sit in our sukkah. I just happened to have picked up a book from the library called Tamar’s Sukkah by Ellie Gellman. Written more than a decade ago, the book has a timeless feel. It’s the story of a Jewish girl named Tamar who keeps wondering what her sukkah is missing. She recruits a friend to help, and they keep recruiting more friends until they have added decorations and a table and had a little party in the sukkah. The message is simple: Sukkot is about being together, about bringing friends into your space for even a short while. “Mommy, we had our friends in our sukkah,” Simon said. “Yes, we did,” I said with a smile.
In building our sukkah, we gave our son and ourselves memories that may last a lifetime. We have yet to take all of our sukkah down. When we do, we will save most of it for next year. Each year, we may get a little better at the planning so it’s not a last-minute scramble. Or we may not. That, for our family, may be just the way it is.