My first sukkah was constructed by a Quebecois war veteran who summered in the Philippines. He was a handyman my cousin knew, and my husband and I were three months into our new apartment in Montreal. We had called one of the numbers on neighborhood posters advertising custom wood-paneled sukkahs, but the cost was more than our monthly rent, so there we stood with Louis (loo-EE), trying to explain what we wanted.
Our backyard was more of a small L-shaped back lot, laid with brick, and we bargained with the landlord to use the skinny part of the L for our sukkah. It was buffered on two sides by the brick walls of our triple-decker and on one side by a chain link fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s. “We want a shed frame,” we said, “but with no walls. But it has to support weight on top.”
He looked at us quizzically. “Okay, so like this?” He sketched a basic shed shape with a pitched roof. “No, no roof,” we said. “No roof? Okay, but that’s one funny-looking shed…”
My husband drove off to the hardware store, and then Louis set about sawing and fitting a frame for us, a simple box one might draw in geometry class. I drew an elaborate diagram in blue pen and labeled all the parts. It had three walls – made of white tarp and kept in place by brick and chain link. There was some amount of drilling. Besides our chuppah, this was the first home we had ever owned.
Every year, we took out that diagram and somehow cobbled together this sukkah. We dragged it with us to Toronto when we moved here eight years ago. By the second year, when we were drilling right up until the holiday, we had to admit defeat. With small kids and friends coming for dinner, we couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t topple down on us. We made kiddush quickly, eyes nervously watching the top beams, and went inside for dinner.
Each year, Jewish families around the world pull out their handwritten diagrams and piles of wood, and each year it’s like we’ve never built a sukkah before, a puzzle with no box top. Eventually, some of us spring for a kit, like we finally did with a gift from my in-laws. But still, you need to decide where to set it up, if the canvas moves too much, if there’s enough sky on top. There are a lot of rules about what constitutes a kosher sukkah.
Why doesn’t every sukkah look the same? Lots of Judaica has variation – your Fenway Park menorah or modernist brushed steel seder plate of bowls. But those items only have a few requirements – eight lights plus shamash, six spots for seder items. The sukkah has so many – at least 2.5 walls, schach must be natural but not attached to the ground and not an animal, although some say it could be an elephant, walls can’t blow in the wind more than a certain distance if they are fabric but only have to be 40 inches tall, can’t be under a tree or overhang because you need to see the stars but could be on a camel, and more. You’d think we would have standardized this across the board by now. Why is there so much discussion in the Talmud and Halachic literature about what can be a kosher sukkah?
As I try to source the longest wooden poles in downtown Toronto to lay across the top of my sukkah kit (where did the kit’s bamboo poles go? Lost in the move last year?? And why doesn’t anyone have anything in 13 feet?), I begin to think this is all part of it. Having your own sukkah is one of the mitzvahs you really have to work at to accomplish; you have to make your own choices about how to create your version according to your situation and means, and there’s lots of latitude. It’s so important that it can be adapted to your specific situation. A re-enactment of journeying from slavery in Egypt to the Land of Israel can’t be simple, it seems. And that journey also has to be uniquely your own – chain link fence, tarp, twinkle lights, and all.
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.