These days, it doesn’t take me very long to put up my sukkah. When it was new, it took me a while to figure out how the parts fit together, but now I have it down to a science. I lay the poles on the ground and connect them one by one to make the frame. Then I hang the tarpaulins that form the walls and place the bamboo mat on the top for the roof. When that’s all done, I ask the kids to come in and decorate it. I am not entirely sure how it stays together each year but somehow the roof stays on, the decorations stay up and it is always a wonderful retreat to share with family and friends during the festival of Sukkot. After all, there is something about a sukkah that is miraculous.
More and more Jews are building sukkot these days. I guess they have come to the same realization as I that when we build a sukkah, we are creating something for ourselves and our families far more lasting than a temporary harvest festival booth. We are making memories.
I know that this is true for me because it now takes me much more time to take down my sukkah than to put it up. My sukkah has become a memory album and the day after Simchat Torah, that joyous festival that brings the fall holiday season to an end, has become a day on which I add this year’s new memories to those of years gone by.
My sukkah, like most everyone else’s, is not professionally decorated, but I find it beautiful. The knots and strings that hold it up also tie my life together. I hang the same plastic fruit from its roof that my family used for our sukkah when I was a child. Besides being reusable, plastic fruit has the advantage of neither rotting nor attracting bees, the bane of many sukkot.
I bought the sukkah itself the first Sukkot I spent in my old house in North Jersey about ten years ago. That house had a beautiful garden that gave my family and me great pleasure. But a sukkah is a timeless place and now when I enter my sukkah, part of me feels that I am still in that garden.
My sukkah is truly a place in which the years come together. I drape decorative chains of Rosh Hashanah cards from years gone by from the ceiling. I hang my children’s artwork from pre-school on the walls, and although the sukkah isn’t very big, there always seems to be room for their most recent work as well. I also hang up favorite illustrations from an old Jewish art calendar that I used when I did graduate work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem almost twenty-five years ago. I often think of the box in which I store all these decorations as a treasure chest.
There is a custom that during Sukkot we invite our biblical ancestors to join us in the sukkah to celebrate the holiday. I have found, however, that while I am in my sukkah, I am not only visited by such biblical heroes as Abraham and Sarah but also by all those, friends and family, who have celebrated the holiday season with me in the past. Now, even though time and distance have taken them away from me, they still come, at least spiritually, to join me and my family in my sukkah. As I take down the walls of the sukkah, I feel as if I am saying good-bye to them for another year.
Dragging everything back into the garage, I think of the holidays that have just passed and realize how much strength and support I receive during this sacred season. It is always thrilling to see so many of us gather together in synagogue to celebrate the New Year. The sound of the shofar, the ancient melodies of Yom Kippur, the lulav and etrog of Sukkot and the dancing and singing on Simchat Torah remind me that I am not alone. I am part of a small but wonderful people who have a glorious tradition and a wonderful outlook on life. The underlying message of our fall holidays is that it is great to be alive, the world is full of promise and God’s loving presence is never far away. The spirit of hope we bring to our worship and celebrations is very much part of my sukkah memories.
As I place my sukkah in a safe place in my garage, I know that I am also placing my memories in a safe place in my heart. I always have a sense of sadness as I put away my sukkah that day after Simchat Torah. But that sadness is tempered by the hope for a good new year, by the love of family and friends, by the memories I have stored in my sukkah, and by the understanding that Chanukah is really not that far away anymore.