Sukkoth – A Backyard Succah
While my family does not celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth, some of our best friends do, and their celebration is so jubilant that I just have to share it with you.
As soon as Yom Kippur is over, our friends begin to make a sukkah, a hut or temporary booth, in their backyard. When you build a sukkah, you are recreating the experience of living in the fields as farmers did in biblical times, when Isrealites wandered the dessert for 40 years after leaving Egypt. There are only five days before Sukkoth begins so they invite their friends and family to help with the building.
They begin with four 7 foot 2x4's that serve as the legs of the hut. They cut small squares in their grass about 6 inches deep to place the 2x4's in (they save the grass pieces to return them to the lawn after Sukkoth is over.) They carefully measure the distance needed to accommodate the roof and make the primary structure a large square piece of lattice that is attached to the legs with hammer and nails. While the structure is solid, it is not exceptionally secure, so everyone is careful not to lean or hang on the sukkah.
The roof is the most strictly enforced aspect of the sukkah. It must be organic, specifically something that grew from the ground. It is a time consuming and important step so is the first thing we help our friends finish. They ask that we decorate the lattice with leaves, branches, ivy, flowers and other plants or vines that we can cut from our garden or find on the ground. My kids love collecting leaves so this is an easy task. We bring all the foliage over to our friends' house and an adult (because of the height) places it on the top. The covering should be enough to guarantee more shade than sun, but not so much that you can't see the stars at night. The kids and moms give plenty of direction so that this is accomplished. When complete, we admire the design and pray for little wind. (Prayers are always answered on religious holidays, right?)
The walls are next. One is left completely undecorated for easy entry and exit. The other three can be made out of anything so every year our friends try to do something different. Last year they chose a cream colored tulle so that plenty of light could come in. My friend went to a fabric store and bought a huge ream of tulle so that she could easily wrap it around the wood posts by simply walking back and forth. The walls were not completely solid, there were some gaps, but it gave the desired effect. The structure of the sukkah is now finished.
Decorating the sukkah takes place the night before the first day of Sukkoth. Included in the decorations are fruits and vegetables, including corn, apples, grapes and pomegranates. We string food such as popcorn or berries and hang them from the roof. We also string natural things like flowers, acorns and pinecones. The kids make bright colored paper chains and drawings of nature to adorn the walls. And our friends always include pictures of their family and friends hanging in mobile fashion.
Other crafts that can be included in the decorating are green pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and construction paper leaves. Our friends supply gourds for the adults to paint. The gourds are placed on the ground in the corners of the sukkah. Lastly, we all make weathergrams. These are made from brown paper grocery bags or lunch bags and decorated with short poems and pieces of multicolored tissue paper. Cut the bags into 3' by 12' strips. Fold down a flap at one end, punch a hole through it and tie a string through the hole. Write your poem and decorate with tissue paper squares.
Succoth is a time of giving thanks and counting our blessings. In fact, the American Pilgrims took a hint from Sukkoth when originating the holiday of Thanksgiving. Hospitality is also important and our friends are the best at sharing important holidays with others. They rejoice in good food and good company and are especially thankful for the helping hands of friends.
The succah looks simply amazing when finished. Because we live in California the weather is still warm at the end of September. The temporary shelter, therefore, can be used for lots of things, including eating, reading, playing games, or sleeping. On the first day of Sukkoth our friends invite everyone who helped build the hut to a festive dinner. We eat outside, in the succah, or wherever there is room (the kids usually make a beeline for the hut they helped decorate - it's fun to lay on the ground and look up at the sky through the roof.)
Our friends light candles and recite several blessings. The holiday meal includes pumpkin soup, vegetable soup, corn bread, grapes and delicious smoked cheese and crackers. For dessert there is spice cake and pumpkin bread. Their backyard glows with warmth and then they wave a lulav and etrog (sticks bound together with a fruit that looks like a lemon) to signify the good fortune all around us and that it is time to eat, drink wine and rejoice in the moment.
It is a great party that is repeated on the ninth and last day of Sukkoth (we're so lucky we know the right people.) Then we help take down the succah and look forward to the next year.