There was one year I didn’t build a sukkah.
I was studying for a semester abroad in Jerusalem at Hebrew University in the fall of 2000, and with the rush of new experiences everywhere I looked I hadn’t even thought about building a sukkah until I started to see them popping up on balconies all over the city. I lived in the dorms, so it wasn’t like I had access to space or material for a sukkah of my own, but once the holiday started I realized I had missed something important. For me, it wasn’t just being in a sukkah, but actually building one. That year I realized that I had my own Jewish needs to fulfill in order to feel whole, and it was the last year that I didn’t build at least one sukkah.
I may be a professional Jewish educator now, but back when I was a kid I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I didn’t want to go to shul with my parents, and when they dragged me with them I spent most of my time outside of the service. But my mom started calling me a “tactile Jew” because she understood that the Jewish things that I loved involved using my hands — rolling the dense matzah balls for Passover seder, kneading the triple batch of dough for our special family Rosh Hashanah recipe with apples and honey mixed in. And building the sukkah in our backyard.
Back then it was day-long affair; we stored the lumber in the rafters of our garage, each piece labeled “North Corner” and indicating which side was supposed to go up. We had a bag of bolts, washers and nuts that we reused for years, and when we found some of the wood warped and felt the structure was less than sturdy, we cannibalized the sides of a bookshelf to serve as supports. We needed everyone in the family to help, whether it was holding a corner while someone else worked the ratchet or making new decorations to give it a sense of festivity.
Now I’m a father of three, proud to bring my kids into the family tradition of building a sukkah every year and hosting guests as much as our schedules and the weather permit. Only, they’re really not much help. In fact, I’m certain the whole thing would go quicker if I did the whole thing on my own.
This year my kids are six, two, and four months old. They’re not great at following directions, they get underfoot whenever I try to move the materials and fight over who gets to stand on the step ladder, regardless of actually doing anything on it. They cry, whine and want attention when all I’m trying to do is build a sukkah in the brief window of time available between the end of Yom Kippur and the start of Sukkot four days later.
But still… I see they want to be involved. They want to feel useful. They want a sense of pride and ownership, or maybe just to help Abba.
So I make sure that they get a chance to help, as much or as little as they want. I’ve got a rubber mallet, and the six-year-old loves to use it to pound the prefab metal and plastic pieces of our modern sukkah kit together in place. He also helps to attach the walls and has very specific ideas of where all of our decorations should hang — and can even put some of them up himself, with twine and safety pins.
Our two-year-old runs around, but he can hold the step ladder when his brother climbs it. He’s happy to hold the mallet when we no longer need it and is good at taking out the decorations and placing them on the table for us to sort.
And the four-month-old? Well, she still likes to be held, but this year she was content to watch her brothers and me build the structure from the comfort of her stroller. Next year I’m sure she’ll want to be in on the action as well.
Even if the New Jersey rain or humidity or mosquitos force us all inside for most of the holiday, for my family and me, what really makes it a joyous experience is the act of building our sukkah, together.