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October 20, 2014 | 26th Tishrei 5775

Sukkah Season

Galilee Diary #461, October 14, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord you God.
-Leviticus 23:42-43

The day before Sukkot I was walking down the street in Jerusalem, and kept having to make detours around the "construction sites" of sidewalk sukkot being erected by restaurant workers. In general, Sukkot offers a wonderful case study in the successful Zionist transformation of Judaism from religion to culture. Sukkot are ubiquitous - on roofs, balconies, courtyards, and parking lots. There are huge institutional ones at hotels and kibbutzim and yeshivot, modest family models, and tiny ones built by falafel stand owners to allow their customers to perform the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah (usually interpreted as eating there). Indeed, the sidewalk sukkot of Jerusalem are a classic case of the interface of religion and capitalism: if you operate a kosher restaurant and want to keep your religiously observant clientele during the week of Sukkot, you need to provide a sukkah or they'll patronize the competition.

There are different styles - in orthodox neighborhoods, the sukkot tend to be more substantial, plywood sheets nailed on a wood frame to make permanent panels that can be dismantled and stored from year to year. We had a sukkah like that in the US - but that's because we always had a basement or garage to store it in. Here, we followed the more popular option, buying a frame of square steel tubes with interlocking brackets at the ends, on which we tie muslin sheets for walls; you can buy these plain or printed with sukkah-themed decoration. Permanent skhakh (sukkah roofing), which seems an oxymoron, is also extremely popular - loosely woven reed mats that can be rolled up and saved from year to year. While these may be halachically acceptable, to us they have always seemed not quite right, so we always cover our sukkah with real branches; in recent years we have always been able to obtain enough by waiting to prune the trees and bushes in our yard until the day before the holiday.

Many people, of course, build a sukkah as a religious obligation, and are meticulous about fulfilling the requirements of halachah regarding dimensions and geometry and materials - and also about eating and even sleeping in the sukkah. One of our favorite Jerusalem memories was of eating holiday or Shabbat dinner in our sukkah and hearing the music of singing families emanating from all the other sukkot along the parking lot of our apartment block. However, thousands of sukkot are erected around the country - by families, by kids in empty lots, by youth groups - not to fulfill a religious commandment, but because that is what Jews do after Yom Kippur. In some ways, for better or for worse, the sukkah in secular Israeli culture is like the Christmas tree in secular American culture - a religiously attenuated yet still very popular symbol of the season. Whether or not you believe that the Children of Israel really lived in sukkot in the desert, whether or not you see eating in the sukkah as a religious obligation, you cannot escape the sukkah as a feature of the cultural - and physical - landscape, and I doubt that there are many Jews, of any persuasion, who don't derive some joy, connection to the land and to the seasons, family togetherness, and/or Zionist fulfillment from the sukkot that spring up across the land for a week (which is, incidentally, a major vacation period). And then having put ourselves at the mercy of the elements for a week, we pack away the sukkah and go back indoors to wait (and pray) for the rain.

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