We have had all kinds of sukkahs over the years, and they all served us well. Another thing about those sukkahs to discuss is the period of our lives in which they served us.
This Sukkos, which begins Sunday night, is the one that, years ago, would have featured the use of winter coats and possibly even what we used to call “hats with earmuffs.” If the weather here in New York does turn in that direction, this is the time that it would be most likely.
Today’s sukkah, perhaps like airplane construction, is lighter and flimsier than it once was. Not true of my childhood sukkah by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. Just maneuvering the sukkah out of our backyard garage and onto our front porch where it could be assembled (a big job itself) was not a simple mission. But on the other hand, I have not seen a sukkah like that tall, heavy, and thick wood one since those days, dating back to the early 1980s.
This sukkah was large and comfortable. The floor of our front porch was cement, so there was no need for some additional service to be added to the structure. Our schach, though, was a bit unusual. It consisted of two-inch wooden slats in the pre-bamboo and, of course, pre-bamboo-mat stage. If it was your job to get the roof of the sukkah done, you were assured to end with one or two splinters in your fingers.
The positive side to injuring yourself with one of those splinters was that you received the chance to take a break and bandage the wound, with the additional possibility that you would be relieved by a sibling who would resume this arduous task. This is not to minimize the years spent in that sukkah; they were actually great and I’d take them back anytime.
It was a large space with a fairly austere décor. Chabad sukkahs usually do not feature any colorful decorations. While we did not strictly adhere to that custom, let’s just say we almost did — mostly because none of us children wanted to decorate the sukkah.
My starkest memory of sitting in that sukkah was at night and freezing-cold, very un-sukkah-like weather even for New York. A cursory glance at the weather forecast for the next week or so shows that it will be about 45 degrees at night, which is cold for sitting and dining outdoors.
It was on that Sukkos that I recall wearing a winter coat and ski mask in the sukkah. I wasn’t playacting or exaggerating, just plain freezing. The cap covered my entire face except for my eyes. I remember when my mom finally served some soup, I lifted the part that covered my mouth to feed myself some much-needed hot consommé.
It used to be that a sukkah was just that — a sukkah, with four walls and some schach thrown on top to make it kosher. But even way back when, there was a sukkah that will always stand out for me and that was the sukkah of the Spinka Rebbe on Crown Street.
There was usually at least one day of chol ha’moed that I went with my dad to daven Shacharis at Spinka. The Rebbe exuded a regal sense of majesty. He was a tall man and he wore — on the intermediate days anyway — a long colorful “bekeshe,” topped with a noble-looking shtreimel.
The sukkah was spread over a large flat surface which I think might have been the roof of the home’s garage or maybe a veranda that was attached to the house. In a far corner of the sukkah there was a bed where I assume the Rebbe slept at night in the tradition of observing the mitzvah of sukkah by living in the sukkah as you would live in your house. But next to the bed and attached to the wall was a yellow telephone. I had never seen a phone set up in a sukkah; this was at least two decades before anyone dreamed of a cellphone. And then there was the Rebbe’s lulav. It looked perfect and befitting a man of the Rebbe’s stature.
Later, during the recitation of Hallel, the Rebbe held his lulav and esrog high above his head in a position easily seen by everyone present. When it came to that part of the service, the Rebbe’s lulav moved and shimmied with an ease and gracefulness I had not previously witnessed. My father used to nudge me to make sure I was paying attention and then joked that the Rebbe’s lulav looked like it was shaking with uniformity and almost an electronic rhythm. I think that for a short time I actually believed the Spinka Rebbe’s lulav was plugged into the wall somewhere or possibly energized by batteries.
Getting married and leaving home meant navigating our way through the still evolving sukkah market. We opted for a small economical canvas sukkah that came in a bright half-purple, half-yellow design, which we erected outside the front of our rental home in Brooklyn. Unexpectedly, the folks we were renting the apartment from asked if they could share our sukkah to which we agreed. But then my in-laws joined us for yom tov as well, and all of a sudden things were tight in this little sukkah.
After we moved and increased the size of the canvas sukkah, the temporary edifice was placed in our backyard and we were the only family using it most of the time. We lived in Brooklyn for 11 years before moving out to the Five Towns and that sukkah served us well.
There was one yom tov morning when I walked to the back of the house with a cup of coffee after a rather windy night and discovered that my sukkah just wasn’t there. Overnight, the wind had blown it into my neighbor’s backyard, and there it was, lying on its side. We followed rabbinical direction on how to deal with that situation.
This year we are not building a sukkah at home because our home is a construction site and we will not be there over most of the yom tov. Interestingly, or fortunately, we have more than a few neighbors who have sukkahs and who will not be home for part or most of yom tov.
A few years ago we spent part of Sukkos in Israel where we experienced some of the most intriguing sukkahs. Particularly interesting are the restaurant sukkahs whose walls are only about waist high on the average person. Of course, it is a kosher sukkah but it struck me that aside from the blessing of the kohanim and the Kotel, the most vital part of being in Israel for Sukkos is about seeing and being seen.
OK, so that is a little cynical, I’ll grant you that, but it is just a casual observation. This week, the sukkahs are going up if they aren’t already, and the brief lulav-and-esrog season gets going in earnest. In the aftermath of the observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is the season of our rejoicing. Let’s rejoice!