I understood that dwellings were temporary long before I learned about sukkahs.
We first moved when I was 6, from a quiet cul-de-sac in the New York City suburbs to an apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey. My biological father had left my mother, sisters, and me with no forwarding address, just his angry creditors banging at our door. Mom focused on the essentials: selling our house to pay the bills, hiring a sitter so she could go to work, and helping us heal from my dad’s absence.
We didn’t join a temple until a few years later, when my older sister neared 13 and a local rabbi agreed to cram years of training into a few months of studying her Torah portion. I started Hebrew school then and remember visiting the temple’s sukkah to hang the chain links my fourth-grade class had made from colorful strips of construction paper. My family had gathered with my grandparents for holiday meals and lit Hanukkah candles at home, but Sukkot was new to me. I watched the rabbi wave the lulav and etrog in the dim light, feeling as much an outsider as I did when my school friends spoke to each other in Korean.
In 1987, when I was 10, my mom married John, a big-hearted man who wanted a family as much as we needed a father. We moved again, this time to a sleepy town west of Hartford, Connecticut. John was Irish Catholic, raised by parents so devout they’d sent him to a high school seminary hoping he’d become a priest. The first year of our blended family, we joined a Reform temple—but we also, to honor John’s heritage, hung pillowcases as Christmas stockings and searched for Easter eggs. When my younger sister asked to meet Santa at the mall the next winter, however, my mom drew the line. We were her Jewish kids; she’d let us dabble in John’s traditions, but they weren’t ours. (John ultimately converted to Judaism several years later, but that’s another story.)
I married my high school prom date (also a Reform Jew) under a chuppah when we were 25. After graduate school in Boston, we settled in Connecticut near our parents. At the Hartford Jewish Film Festival in 2006, we saw the quirky Israeli movie Ushpizin. The film showed me a Sukkot far cozier and spiritual than I’d known in Hebrew school. It centered around a Hasidic couple devastated by years of infertility. They prayed for a miracle and received several when they found a much-needed envelope of cash, two jailbreaks to be their ushpizin (or welcomed guests), and an abandoned sukkah in the old city of Jerusalem.
After seeing the movie, I became smitten with the idea of having a sukkah of my own.
I had my first child later that year. My son Ryan soon became obsessed with building. First, he watched Bob the Builder and Handy Manny cartoons and hammered golf tees into foam, then constructed forts in the woods behind our house. I was a lawyer and my husband, a beer distributor. We called carpenters to replace the mailbox post and to hang heavy mirrors. Ryan hadn’t inherited his woodworking interest from us, but we tried to nurture it.
Having a sukkah tempted me, but the challenge of building one came among the tumult of back to school and traveling for the High Holidays. Ryan and his two younger siblings were born in the fall, so their births and birthday parties brought more distractions. Finally, when Ryan was 9, he and I tried to make our first sukkah, sinking giant bamboo poles in deep flowerpots with a bright orange mallet. Our footings collapsed when we tried to lash the poles together for a roof.
Then the Monday morning after Yom Kippur in 2017, I visited a friend’s sukkah for a women’s Torah study group. Along with my Reform temple community and the PJ Library Jewish children books that arrived in our mailbox, these monthly gatherings helped me integrate Jewishness into hectic modern motherhood. I kneaded (and bought) more challahs, braiding in a bit more discussion with my kids about our values and performing mitzvot. Our teacher Shayna, a Chabad rebbetzin, was open and without judgment of our varying observances. If she deemed me faithless, she never let on.
Tucked on wooden benches surrounding a folding table, our group of six nearly filled the metal-framed booth. The sun glistened on raindrops left overnight on the clear sheeting that made up its sides. Shayna shared the importance of rejoicing during Sukkot and asked how we’d celebrate.
It felt ridiculous since the holiday was two days away, but I said, “I’d love to have a sukkah. Do you think I’m too late for this year?”
“It’s never too late to do a mitzvah,” Shayna said. “I saw some Facebook friends who had sukkahs for sale. I’ll send you a few names.”
I stopped at our Judaica shop on my way home. The Israeli owner showed me the one kit she had left in her back room. Costing $800 and weighing several hundred pounds, it felt too great of a jump from our bamboo and flowerpot contraption. Instead, I bought her last bumpy etrog and lulav bundle, content with having the fruits of the harvest even without the tabernacle.
Shayna texted me the number for a man named Michael, who’d posted on Facebook. By the time I called him, he’d sold his sukkah but offered me his help.
When my husband came home from work, he took over dinner duties with our younger kids. Ryan and I went to Home Depot to see a guy about a sukkah.
“We’re here in my gray minivan,” I texted Michael from the parking lot. “How will we find you?”
“I’m at checkout,” he texted back. “With a full cart full of lumber.”
I expected a black hat and tzitzit but found Michael in khakis and a button-down. He’d loaded a contractor dolly with everything we needed: four-by-fours, metal brackets, screws, blue plastic tarps, and elastic zip ties. He unfolded a sketch he’d drawn on loose-leaf and walked us through the building process. I got the gist but glazed over the details, like the way I lost track when driving directions reached the second rotary. Ryan, then 11, seemed to understand.
“Really, Michael, it’s so nice of you to help us,” I gushed. “How can I thank you?”
“I loved having a sukkah when my kids were young,” he explained. “Now that I’m divorced and my kids are grown, it doesn’t make sense for me to build one. I’m so happy you asked for my help. If you really want, you can make a donation to Chabad’s Friendship Circle, which has been awesome for my daughter with special needs.”
We said goodbye and Michael hurried off to an evening minyan. At home, Ryan and I unloaded the supplies and set up shop under the single bulb of our garage. We measured and marked and managed to attach two brackets before bedtime. After school the next day, Ryan and his neighborhood building buddy put on the other brackets. Some were upside down, but with patience and a phone call with Michael, we fixed the pieces in place.
By 3 o’clock the following day, we framed our wooden hut atop our deck. By 4, we’d collected branches for a roof and hung our own paper chains and harvest decor. The blue plastic tarps were not the sturdy walls I imagined from Ushpizin but they captured fantastic shadows of my son and his friend adding the leafy overhangs.
Our patio furniture fit right in our 8-by-10-foot booth. During the seven-day holiday, we squeezed in all four grandparents for pizza and hosted my sister’s family for falafel. I sent a check to Chabad’s Friendship Circle in Michael’s honor, grateful and proud to have added this ritual to my family’s observance. For too long, we’d limited our Jewish practice to apples and honey, Yom Kippur fasting and eight days of matzo, missing out on a festival that combined my son’s building obsession with my longing to keep my family close and our faith growing.
The next year, we hosted family again and invited friends for ice cream sundaes. Mostly, though, my family of five huddles in with coffee and cereal bowls in the mornings, Rummikub or books and blankets after school. October in New England never measured up to Israel’s harvest weather, but our structure stood up to rains and wind.
When I spoke on the bimah during Ryan’s bar mitzvah last fall, I praised his carpentry skills and perseverance. I challenged him to construct our sukkah for the third time in time for Sukkot. After the party and brunch the next morning, my husband and I lazed on the couch, happy and exhausted. Ryan grabbed a drill, a friend, and his brother Noah. Sure enough, they finished in time for us to have leftover kugel beneath the stars that night.
This year, with our lives pared down to essentials, Sukkot seems the perfect pandemic holiday. A temporary dwelling outside our home’s footprint feels more alluring than ever. After hundreds of meals and months of coronavirus closeness with my crew under one roof, I still look forward to connecting with them over takeout in our cozy hideout.
With less carpooling, evening sports, and school meetings on our fall schedule, I feel primed for our best celebration yet. We’re considering expanding and relocating the sukkah to our yard so we can welcome guests with proper distancing. I never imagined I’d need a WiFi extender for Sukkot but bringing remote learning outside on the alternate weeks my kids will be home will be a treat. And since we exhausted Netflix family films during quarantine, I’m deeming my kids ready for subtitles for a sukkah screening night (I’ve checked—Ushpizin is just $2.99 on Amazon Prime Video).
Like all things in 2020, my joy will be tempered by worries: a second wave of virus, a divisive election, and our country’s reckoning with racism. Yet, I’m reminded of the sweet scene from Usphizin where one rabbi says to another, “Smile, Yom Kippur is over.” Sukkot reminds us that all things are temporary—old heartache and loss, the time to build and break bread as a family, and even, may it be so, this pandemic.
Jodie Sadowsky is a lawyer and freelance writer.