Loyal readers know that I find Sukkot the most challenging holiday to observe. I love my garden, I love the harvest, I love fall, I love being outside, but when it comes to building shit, you’ve lost me.
Though I have a fleeting memory of making construction paper chains at the JCC preschool in Miami circa 1974, Sukkot was not something we Reform Jews brought home. As far as I can tell, carpentry skills fled our DNA as we evolved over generations to become doctors and lawyers and neurotic intellectuals. If God wanted modern American Jews to construct temporary dwellings actually worth dwelling in, the Torah would have come with blueprints.
Still, for years, I maintained the delusion that El Yenta Man and I would transform into tool-wielding architectural dynamos and slap together SOMETHING kosher enough to be consider a sukkah. It’s for the kids! I would say, dragging over our neighbor’s palm tree clippings. They can help! Then I realized that simply breaking down a cardboard cereal box for the recycling is too complex a task for almost everyone in this family, so I gave up.
Not that dwelling in a hut in the backyard for a week doesn’t sound like a blast. But a sukkah is more than just a secret clubhouse to enjoy a purloined stash of snacks and comic books; it has rules: It has to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It has to have a ceiling, but you have to be able to see the stars through it. It should be festively decorated with specific items like perishable fruits, which sounds a bug problem waiting to happen, especially since I tend to leave up the Chanukah banners until Passover.
But this year, Little Yenta Girl would not be satisfied with the Torah-sanctioned and perfectly lovely sukkah at our synagogue and begged and pleaded for us to make our own last Wednesday.
El Yenta Man can’t refuse his precious lovely much, so he said yes. At 45 minutes before sundown and no discernible dinner plans. With nothing more than a some bamboo poles, a broken drill and a stack of wild-patterned schmattas leftover from my African dance days. Let no one ever deny the deranged determination of indulgent Jewish parents.
First, we selected an area near the garden to make a square-like structure, as dictated in the Torah and the helpful, handy folks at Chabad.com. Unfortunately, we had no way to secure the bamboo into the ground, so they kept falling over into the okra bed and onto my head. So we dug some holes, causing the chickens to rush over and scratch at the bed of fire ants we uncovered. Though the sukkah building was not going well, we did at least invent a new Sukkot dance that employs the choreographed spastic slapping of legs while hopping from foot to foot to avoid stepping in chicken poop.
At this point it was getting dark and tempers darker, so we gave up on “kosher” and settled for indigenous, leaning all the poles into each other. It’s inclusive, we’re celebrating the Native American heritage of our region, I explained briskly to our daughter, who looked doubtfully at the sukkah coloring sheet she brought home from Hebrew school and back at our teepee.
Then it was time to decorate: Yenta BoyMan chopped some giant philodendron leaves and leaned them against the poles while EYM draping the mismatched fabric like he was swaddling a giant baby. I started stringing okra and other half-rotting things from the garden until a worm crawled out of the butternut squash and I threw it all over my neighbor’s fence.
The result was a cross between something built by an Ecstasy-addled hippie at Burning Man and the saddest corner of a Somali refugee camp.
“It’s awful,” I said, thinking the dinner I was now expected to make out of penne pasta and wormy squash would pair really well with this disaster.
“A total embarrassment,” agreed EYM.
“I wish I had my Epi-Pen. We not sleeping out here, are we?” whined the BoyMan, obsessively checking the bottom of shoes for chicken poop.
But our girl clasped her hands and smiled.
“It’s perfect,” she declared.
So we brought out blankets and some takeout burritos, and stared through the gaps in the animal prints at the heavens. The girl rushed back inside for a moldy lemon to serve as the etrog, and we gathered up some lawn clippings for a lulav. A happy peace settled over our little family as the philodendron leaves lifted with the first cool breeze felt in these sultry parts since April.
The dog wrenched herself out of her diabetic stupor and snuggled against our outstretched legs as the BoyMan stretched out on the ground pointing out the constellations to his little sister. EYM and I high-fived each other with the relieved enthusiasm of those who choose to celebrate simple accomplishment over obvious ineptitude. I relished the triumph that while we may be the most half-assed Sukkah builders in the history of Judaism, my kids would have at least one decent memory of a hut of their own.
We experienced a good 20 minutes of spiritual and domestic harmony until the dog mistook the purple blanket for a patch of grass and peed in the BoyMan’s hair. That inspired the second movement of the Yenta Sukkot Dance, a highly energetic solo of pulling the shmattas off the wall and flailing them about the head.
“It’s OK,” said Little Yenta Girl. “We’ll just wash everything and put it away for next year.”
Next year? Oy.