Some people take the commandment to beautify a mitzvah very seriously indeed, especially when it comes to their sukkah.
It’s been nearly three decades since Len Upin took brush in hand and, using acrylics, painted a huge tree on the canvas walls of his brand-new sukkah, inviting his three children to join in the fun.
Someone who’s been collecting photos of sukkahs for the last 15 years is Aaron Ginsburg. “Sukkahs of the World” was born when Ginsburg noticed the wide variety of specimens dotting his Sharon, Mass., neighborhood and began photographing them. Soon he was receiving sukkah photos from around the world and posting them on his website, including one from Shanghai dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers and a quaint Parisian one.
For sheer variety, it would be hard to surpass the mind-bending sukkah specimens featured in the competition held in 2013 in New York’s Union Square—the documentary “Sukkah City” tells the story of the competition and spotlights the winners (see trailer).
The competition was organized by writer Joshua Foer to inspire architects and designers to be playful with the structures while adhering strictly to their biblical requirements governing dimensions, roof materials and more. For the full list of guidelines, look no further than the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, where they were set down back in 1563. These include a minimum of three walls—each one at least 28 inches long and at least 40 inches high, while no more than nine inches above the ground. The roof (to be made of natural materials like branches, palm fronds, corn stalks or bamboo) must be dense enough to create more shade than sun, but loose enough to be able to see the stars and feel the rain. In addition, nothing can overhang the sukkah; it must be completely open to the sky and the elements.
But unlike the professional contestants, most busy moderns don’t have the time or the construction skills to devote to perfection, which is why sukkah-kit businesses like the Sukkah Project have sprung up over the last few decades.
Last year during the peak of COVID-19 restrictions, the project saw a sharp downturn in institutional-sized ones for universities and shuls, says owner Abram Herman. Instead, they experienced an uptick in family-sized ones (models start at $368 for a 6’x8’ four-seater.) “If you can’t get to the one at your synagogue’s sukkah anymore, you need one of your own,” says Herman. But this year, he reports, both the family and institutional ones are in high demand, keeping the order center in Grand Junction, Colo., hopping this time of year.
And, if those sales are up then the demand for lulav (long leaves of palm, willow and myrtle bound together within a closed palm frond) and etrog (the citrus fruit specific to the holiday) can’t be far behind. These sets, used for blessings in the sukkah, start at $30 but more typically go for $50 or more through synagogues, Judaica shops and online.
Guests both heavenly and human
Besides a place of blessing, the sukkah was designed to be truly lived in, including working or doing homework, sleeping, and, of course, eating (and for hosting friends and family). Though coronavirus concerns are likely to keep most crowds to a minimum, there are seven guests who (variant or no variant) are bound to show up in every sukkah around the globe.
In order of appearance: Abraham on the first night, then Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and on the seventh and final night King David—each of these ushpizin, or “guests”—bringing his own special blessing to the sukkah and all those found inside. Note: Many also believe these august souls’ wives accompany them on their visits.
But what exactly should hosts serve the guests, at least the human ones?
Joan Nathan, the author of many classic Jewish cookbooks, including King Solomon’s Table, A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, is a great believer in keeping Sukkot menus “festive but easy.” One main dish—possibly a casserole with a salad and fruit for dessert—“is really all you need,” says Nathan. Or try one of her sukkah favorites: pesto and pasta with stir-fried cherry tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini. “And my best recommendation,” she adds, “is when people ask if they can bring anything, always, always say ‘yes.’ Even if it’s just a salad, it’s one less thing for you to have to think about.”
But what if all this holiday joy is outside the reach of especially older people who can’t get out and those hesitant in pandemic times to congregate in a relatively enclosed space?
Put your whole self in …
That’s where the Chabad sukkah mobiles come into play. “Chabad has been sending around sukkah mobiles since time immemorial,” laughs Rabbi Dov Drizin over at the Valley Chabad in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. (He recalls his own father, as a Chabad rabbi in Northern California, building one). “But last year with COVID, we all took it up a notch. If they can’t come to us for the mitzvah, we take it to them.”
So, instead of parking the portable sukkah (it’s often built on the back of a rented pick-up truck or even a tricycle-type vehicle, the pedi-sukkah) in a public place and seeing who shows up to do the mitzvah of sitting and eating (bring on the cookies), and saying the blessings over the lulav and etrog, last year the rabbi and his family began driving it to families around the area. And it’s a practice they plan to continue this Sukkot.
“The sukkah is the one mitzvah you do with your whole body—with your clothes on,” says Drizin (versus a mikvah, which is a full-body mitzvah sans clothing). “But you don’t have to get dressed up in anything fancy; come as you are,” he adds. “Just being inside is like a huge hug from G-d.”
Because wherever it is, as beautiful as a sukkah can be, it’s only when it’s occupied does this temporary dwelling fashioned of wood and canvas, PC piping or steel tubing truly become a sukkah, says Ginsburg. “The sukkah is about the people inside it feeling the joy of the holiday,” he says. “That’s the real way of beautifying this mitzvah.”
- Meet Some Sukkah Guests From Hell
To get in the Sukkot mood, enjoy the 2004 classic film “Ushpizin,” the story of two ex-cons moving in on a down-on-their-luck observant couple (played by real-life spouses Shuli and Michal Rand), turning their lives upside down in the process.
- Stock Up on Construction Paper
Have your kids make sukkah decorations such as stringed popcorn, drawings, paper chains and more to share with neighbors and friends.
- Get Hopping
Organize your own sukkah hop. Note: Though the younger set will enjoy assorted sweets, adult hops typically feature movable meals (hors d’oeuvres, soup, salads, entree and dessert), each course served in a different sukkah. And this year, BYOM (bring your own mask).
- Making the Holiday Count
Conduct a neighborhood sukkah count with your children or grandchildren. Not finding many nearby? Try traveling to an area with more specimens to count.
- Open Your Heart … and Your Hand
Sukkot is a traditional time to give tzedakah (“charity”) to those in need. This is especially important during these times and the ongoing pandemic, when we may not have the mitzvah of feeding the poor or lonely in our own sukkah.
- Watch Them Grow
Many families have the tradition of measuring their children each Sukkot, marking their progress on a corner beam of their sukkah.
- Drink Your Etrog
Planning to find yourself in Jerusalem over the holiday? Not to be missed is the stand in the Machane Yehuda shuk established by third-generation produce guy Uzi-Eli Chezi, aka “the Etrog Man,” who’s been juicing this vitamin-C-packed citrus for a quarter-century. (Note: The flavor also comes in the form of liqueur, citron-flavored, widely available online.)