Sukkot: What the sukkah means to me

I’m looking forward to another Sukkot in Jerusalem where you can buy your lulav and etrog on the street in front of your home and build your sukkah on the mirpeset (balcony/patio) of your apartment.

 SMILING ALISA: Peeling vegetables on a summer camp trip (photo credit: Courtesy Flatow family)
SMILING ALISA: Peeling vegetables on a summer camp trip
(photo credit: Courtesy Flatow family)

For years, Israelis have asked me, “When are you coming for Sukkot?” I always blamed my absence on the cost of staying in a hotel, how many days of Yom Tov I would hold by and a myriad of other excuses only an Anglo could concoct.

“When are you coming for Sukkot?”

What Israelis have asked me for years

Well, having made aliya, I’m looking forward to another Sukkot in Jerusalem where you can buy your lulav and etrog on the street in front of your home and build your sukkah on the mirpeset (balcony/patio) of your apartment. There is no other feeling like it.

We built our first sukkah in 1979, in the backyard of our new home in West Orange, New Jersey. Those of us who learned their Judaic traditions from The Jewish Catalog could easily refer to the instructions it contained on how to build a kosher sukkah. You will find them on page 129. It discussed how many walls the sukkah needed, what to use for the walls and covering, and even contained a parts list of cinder blocks for the corners, 2x4s and 1x2s.

Using the back wall of our home as the fourth wall, our sukkah went up with the cinder block corners, the wood supports, walls made out of bamboo strip fencing that came in a 12-meter roll and branches from the backyard trees for the schach (canopy). We were set to go.

The marginal notes in The Jewish Catalog tell you, “Never make the sukkah overly comfortable. It should shake in the wind.” And boy, was it uncomfortable! It didn’t so much shake in the wind as the walls rippled in a wave from one end to the other, depending on the wind direction. But who cared? It was our first sukkah, and we slept in it the first night.

 Planting a tree in 1992 (credit: Courtesy Flatow family) Planting a tree in 1992 (credit: Courtesy Flatow family)

One day, you decide your sukkah is no longer going to be built from scratch – those cinder blocks were getting harder to carry from the garage to the backyard. Our next one was made out of steel poles, blue walls and bamboo poles for the schach (roofing material). Of course, when the second year of using our sukkah rolled around, yes, I lost the assembly instructions. So it was up and down the ladder for me as I rearranged fittings and elbows. And like socks in the clothes dryer, I was missing schach.

Sukkot: A special time for children

As your family grows to five children, you decide it’s time for a wood panel model, with a door on hinges! You have graduated to bamboo mats, of course, for the schach. And when your family gets still larger and you want to be able to have guests join you for a meal, you add a panel to each side. 

I realized long ago that Sukkot is a special time for children. They seem to enjoy making the decorations and they like to see what their friends have done. Alisa, our eldest, goes on a sukkah hop and comes back to tell me in a whisper that she didn’t think the sukkah at one of the houses was 100% kosher.

“Why?” you ask. In earnest, she says, “It looked like a part of the schach was under the shade of a tree.” With alarm, I asked, “What did you do?” 

“I made the bracha (blessing), silly, in a part of the sukkah that I was sure was kosher.”

All is well, and then, as if overnight, the kids are gone and you begin to spend Yom Tov with them at their homes. Back at your house, you find you no longer need the 20x10 sukkah with four bamboo mats. You find that an 8x10 is more than enough for a few days of Hol Hamoed. Depending on the weather forecast, you may not even hang decorations.

Yet, the construction fiasco continues, and we go up and down the ladder and struggle to remember which way the windows open or whether the canvas was on the right side of the frame, and keep saying to ourselves, “Did I do it this way last year?”

What does the sukkah symbolize?

AS WE mature in our age and in our practices over the years, we learn that there is a lot of discussion among the rabbis as to what the sukkah symbolizes. Does it recall the protection of the clouds that hovered over the children of Israel in the desert or does it recall the actual construction of temporary booths built during the wandering? Of course, in true Fiddler on the Roof fashion, there’s a third understanding that both interpretations are true.

The Talmud is clear that we are required to leave our permanent dwelling and live in a temporary one throughout the festival. However, the temporary nature of the sukkah poses a problem in many climes. Sometimes the temperature is very cold, and sometimes the wind is very strong and causes the schach to fall on our heads while we’re in the midst of our meal. Other times, we awake in the morning to see mats on the ground. Heartbroken, we run to the rabbi to get instructions on when and how we can repair the sukkah.

I would like to suggest my own reason for a sukkah. To me, the sukkah represents life. And like living in the sukkah, life can be uncomfortable. It can shake as if blown by the wind, and sometimes the schach collapses around you.

At the end of the day, despite our cinder block corners, despite our metal cross bars, despite the snap-in joints, the sukkah is not a solid structure, and neither is life.

As we raise our families, we must admit that sometimes we put the pieces together backward or upside down, and we may have to go up and down the ladder many times or take apart the poles and reassemble them to get them right.

Sometimes things happen that no amount of climbing up and down the ladder can fix. Instead, you have to dig deep into yourself to repair the damage, such as when your daughter, the one who taught you about making a bracha in the kosher part of the sukkah, is murdered in a terror attack.

You think back to a happier time when you were surrounded by an intact family and friends in your sukkah. You accept that everything that happens to us is the will of God. You don’t ask why, you just keep living.

So, as I sit in my sukkah this year surrounded by children and grandchildren who live here or came here from the US for the festival, I will watch the walls move gently in the wind, and I will look up to see the stars twinkling through the permitted space of the schach.

But instead of stars shining over Jerusalem, in my mind’s eye I will see the sukkah of Olam Haba (World to Come) and the table set by the Almighty for those murdered al-kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of God’s name). It’s a beautiful table with the finest linen, adorned by golden plates, cups and candlesticks, and it overflows with the food that He provides.

I will see Alisa dressed in her finest, with pilgrim’s sandals on her feet. She has a big smile on her face, her brown eyes shine, and her dimples are deep. She passes the challah dipped in honey to the kedoshim (the holy ones) sitting next to her. And I will hear her laugh as she retells the story of her sukkah hop from many years ago and the smile her answer brought to her father’s face. 

The writer is an attorney and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in a 1995 Palestinian Arab terror attack. He is the author of A Father’s Story: My fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror. He will always be an oleh chadash.