Going to Hebrew school convinced me that Sukkot was a great, fun holiday; what kid wouldn’t want to hang out in a sort-of treehouse set safely on the ground? A hut that you could decorate? Where you could eat meals and sing and talk with your friends? A lulav and etrog set was nice, but not nearly as much fun and full of possibilities as a sukkah.
Our synagogue set up a very large courtyard sukkah each year, but then I learned about people actually building their own sukkahs, eating and even sleeping in them. Oh, did I want to have a sukkah in our backyard or driveway! I’d ask my parents and the answer was always no; too much work, you kids would stomp all over the back lawn, sukkahs attract bees and mosquitos, it’s hard to set up, and so on. I gave up asking after a while, but wondered what it would be like to have a sukkah of our own, and invite friends to come over and play in the sukkah.
Joining a Girl Scouts troop and going camping a few times was fun, but we didn’t get to decorate the tents or cabins, so it wasn’t the same. And we had to cook over these absurd tin-can stoves, which I wouldn’t have done if I had a sukkah.
So when my husband and I moved into our house, I planned to buy, set up and decorate a sukkah. That first sukkah we bought had a heavy canvas, came with a convoluted set of pipes and ties, and seemed intimidating. But my father, who lived a few blocks away, enjoyed setting up our sukkah each year. My daughters grew up having (and enjoying) a sukkah, and we’d invite family and friends to come eat with us and hang out in the sukkah. It was wonderful.
Being a hostess during Sukkot has been somewhat easier than Passover, because with Sukkot you don’t have to change dishes or cook atypical foods. Once you set up the sukkah, it’s fairly easy as long as the weather isn’t too extreme.
After my father died in June 2011, I couldn’t make heads nor tails of how to assemble the sukkah. Dad had stored the directions somewhere and did it all by sight. So I did research on other models that are supposedly easier to put together. I found a type where the metal frame pieces click together with a bit of mallet pounding. I bought it and each year I assemble our family sukkah.
I have enjoyed welcoming guests into the sukkah, serving them meals, offering them a chance to say blessings over the lulav and etrog. It’s been a superb way to educate, entertain, and bring people together. Jews and non-Jews, kids and adults, people with various tastes and opinions: they’ve come to my sukkah and we’ve had a fun, meaningful time.
But what happens to Sukkot and our sukkahs during this unusual, challenging time we are dealing with now? How do we adapt the sukkah, the star sensation of the holiday, so that it can be a socially distanced yet holiday-friendly option?
Immediately, I thought of the outdoor dining scene going on right now in my hometown of NYC. This recent phenomenon of “sidewalk seating and seats along streets closed to vehicular traffic” has become the new normal in many neighborhoods. I bike and drive around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I’ve seen many people dining and drinking al fresco. But most are eating under large-scale umbrellas and without walls, which is different from the sukkah which does have canvas or nylon walls, and a thatched roof of bamboo.
The next thing I realized is that I really didn’t have to change up things greatly, just modify, modify, modify. Thus, I asked a few friends and relatives if we could host them for a meal in our sukkah. We decided that what we’d do as far as social distancing is to let our guests eat in the sukkah, pull the entrance flaps back wide, while my family and I would sit on our back porch and eat. We will be a bit more than six feet away, and we could make the pre-meal blessing first in the sukkah, then settle in on the porch.
For those who insist on eating all their meals fully in the sukkah, this wouldn’t be ideal, but my feeling is this: the people who are coming over don’t have their own sukkahs, and this year they may be even more reluctant to eat in a public sukkah (such as one provided at a pizza shop). So let my friends ‘n fam have a chance in the sukkah, we will be spread apart, and we can all chat and chew anyway.
It won’t be the same as in the past years, when we would all squish in together in the sukkah, pass bowls and trays and bottles, admire the many sukkah decorations we’ve amassed over the years (colored leis! Plastic grapes! Art projects from my girls! A few Gumby, Pokemon and Star Wars figurines!) and share funny anecdotes. In fact, I am not having more than two guests per meal, on purpose. One time we had about a dozen in the sukkah, which really is sized for up to eight. But now we need the elbow room.
There are various ways to embrace the sukkah: it’s a blessing that shelters you all over; it’s a way to go outside your comfort zone; it’s a recreation of an ancient dwelling; it’s about sort of communing with nature and the harvest time. It’s also about the fragility of life. As much as I can make the sukkah fairly sturdy, a storm could knock it down. (Believe me, I’ve seen and heard the collapsing of a few sukkahs. BAM.) But a sukkah is temporary, set up for a few days out of the year.
Before, during, and after Sukkot 5781/2020, we still have plenty of big worries on our minds: Covid-19, a poor economy, environmental woes, fires out west, a contentious political scene, and so on. The sukkah cannot shelter us from these societal problems. But for a brief portion of time, we can hang out and eat in the sukkah, and reflect upon the timeless quality of the dwelling, of the holiday, and of certain positive tropes of life. This year the sukkah is even more welcome than ever. And I can still whip up a few interesting meals to share.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.