Sukkot was coming. Or, as the Municipal Parking Bureau of New York City calls it, the Festival of the Booths.
I was 30, single, working as a secretary, and living in Brooklyn just a scant block from the unremitting gray of Coney Island Avenue. The thought of eight days of eating big meals in a sukkah, an outdoor wooden hut, filled me with a strange dread. Strange, because Sukkot had actually been my favorite holiday as a child. I had wonderful memories of my father patiently piecing together the wood panels, my siblings and I zealously decorating every square inch of wall, my mother’s pungent Moroccan harira soup, feasting out there, sleeping out there, our rowdy family trying to rein itself in, not wanting to freak out our non-Jewish neighbors.
But at 30, there was no childhood home, my parents having divorced a few years before, and after a 10-year stint in Jerusalem, I’d landed in Brooklyn, the capital city of blind dating (at least for Orthodox Jews). I tried to fit in, learned its ways, got rid of my Nimrod sandals and batik-print skirts and wore straight skirts and pointy shoes like a real “Ortho” Brooklynite. I ate hundreds of Shabbat meals at other family’s homes, taking notes on how these mostly black-hat Yeshivish people disciplined their large broods, flirted (under the radar), dressed (in blue, black, and gray), and ate (they didn’t know from quinoa), as if by gathering enough information, I, too, would one day have a family like theirs. They set me up on dates with accountants and dentists who’d gone to Torah Ve’Daas or some other respectable yeshiva. I met scores of them. Nothing panned out, and at 30 I was done with eating at other families’ tables.
Sukkot is the holiday of harvesting, of thankfulness. Every time I went to someone else’s house with her Talmudic scholar husband and her precocious kids, I was reminded again and again how richly they had harvested in life, and I hadn’t. I’d left my beautiful Jerusalem to pursue a degree in creative writing, and also to find a good, like-minded man. Neither had happened. What was I even doing in Brooklyn, a shadow of my vibrant poetic self, in ridiculously tight shoes? In the absence of so much, couldn’t I at least have a sukkah?
Sukkot has always been a family-oriented holiday. Singles, especially single women, at least in Brooklyn, are expected to attach themselves to other families’ sukkahs. I couldn’t find any other Jewish woman who, like me, wanted a hut of her own. And on my ultra-Orthodox block, a woman building a sukkah would stick out like a woman smoking a cigar. Much as I considered myself brave and individualistic, I liked—no, craved—their nods of approval, their smiles that said: With a little bit of help you could become even more like us. I’d never even told them that I wanted to join an MFA program: over the top, I imagined them thinking. And so for a nod of approval, a smile, I’d buried myself.
But that fall more than 20 years ago, I knew in my marrow that something had to change. As if fueled by deep primal yearnings, I took a Russian car service to Boro Park and bought a sukkah from a wholesale dealer. He said it would be a cinch to build. It wasn’t. But somehow, with the help of people I literally pulled off the streets, I did it.
I couldn’t wait to decorate it just the way I wanted. It would be a feminine sukkah, an adult-type sukkah, no crayon drawings of lopsided Abrahams or paper chains that would disintegrate after the first rainfall. I painted a Jerusalem mural on the sukkah’s walls, hung wicker baskets and plants, wrote out the soulful Ushpizin prayer inviting celestial and earthly guests to enter the sukkah. Still, it looked bare, barren.
In my closet, I found a garbage bag filled with tichels—head scarves—from my 10-year sojourn in Israel. Every month since my early 20s I’d bought a beautiful tichel, anticipating the day I’d cover my hair as a married woman. Buying the tichel was an act of hope, a prayer, in a way, my tichel dowry. When I moved to Brooklyn and saw no women wearing tichels—wigs and hats had become the fashion—I’d stopped this practice but couldn’t bring myself to throw out the scarves. Then it struck me: I’d take those reject scarves and drape them throughout my sukkah. If I couldn’t wear them, at least the sukkah would. And they did look gorgeous against the panels.
My funky tichel sukkah became the hit of the block, no easy feat in a street of at least 20 festival booths. The kids, Hasidic, Yeshivish, Jewish, goyish, all stopped in, ate my cookies, and said how great it was. The best compliment came from a Hasidic boy who looked around, wide-eyed, and spread out his arms: “It’s like a rocket ship!”
The neighborhood women stuck their heads inside, too. I saw their faces. Not disapproving as I’d feared, just … struck. Then thoughtful. All in all more than 50 people passed through my sukkah. A couple got engaged in that sukkah (though they later divorced). Songs were sung, lulavs shaken, meals eaten, and blessings made. Inside these four walls, I felt generous, not pinched and deprived. Somehow here I had found my expression. In the sukkah, I felt contained by the four walls, enveloped, just as a fetus is held and contained by its mother. As though the sukkah was pregnant—with me. What would emerge?
When at the end of eight days the sukkah came down, I bought nice dishes, instead of continuing to rely on my roommates’. (It might seem insignificant but it was a small act of definition.) Then I got up my courage and applied and was accepted to Brooklyn College’s MFA creative writing program. I wrote the kernel of a novel that would later get published by St. Martin’s Press. For Passover, I made my own Seders and invited friends. My Yeshivish neighbors still invited me for Shabbat, and occasionally I went, but it felt different. Or let’s say, they saw that I was different. I was no longer the young woman who ingratiated herself at all costs at their Shabbat table. Not long after, I formed a group of Orthodox musicians, writers, and artists.
Two sukkah seasons later, I met my future husband—another writer—at my artist group. I took one look at his outrageously intense blue eyes and knew, despite his having gone to a tame black-hat yeshiva, I was in for a wild ride. By the time he asked me out, my hand shook with terror and joy because I knew he was the one. He helped me put up my third sukkah, my last one as a single woman in Brooklyn. It swayed, but didn’t collapse. We held onto it as a married couple. The scarves were no longer decorating the sukkah walls but my own head.
That long ago Sukkot, I discovered that one can use every holiday for self-invention. I learned how excruciating but necessary it is to say to a wonderful community: I’m not like you. And I discovered that if I could build a sukkah, just maybe I could build a self.
Ruchama Feuerman is the author of the novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, and just recently The Mountain Jews and the Mirror, a children’s folktale about the Jews of Casablanca.