Years ago, a former colleague came up to me on an autumn day and posed a simple question out of the blue.
“Any interest in a free sukkah?” she asked. “No pressure, it’s just collecting dust in my shed and I want to make some room. I just thought someone else might want it.”
At first, I was stymied and noncommittal. I’d never actually had a sukkah before.
Back when I was a kid, the only people I knew who had their own sukkahs were Orthodox. Otherwise, it was just considered something rather exotic and unusual. Sukkahs seemed to be more of a shul thing, unless you were frum.
Of course, the times have changed and now you see sukkahs of all sizes and variations across Northwest Baltimore and beyond, and not all of them are owned and used by Orthodox folks.
My kids were young at the time and in Hebrew school, so I figured, “Hmmm, why not? Might be fun.” My co-worker warned me not to expect too much, that it was just a “starter sukkah,” a little bigger than one of those things we used to call a public telephone booth.
That was fine, I said. Beggars can’t be choosy.
I went over her house a few days later and picked up the “flesh and bones” of what was the sukkah, left for me on her front lawn to haul away. It was indeed quite small — just barely enough room for four people, including two children. Just a wood beam, plastic rods, a weathered tarp and bamboo schach, the covering placed upon a sukkah in which the sky should be somewhat visible to remind one of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness.
We went about assembling the sukkah and setting it up on the patio in our backyard, and I remember the boy next door asked if he could help. After all, he’d put up quite a few sukkahs at that point in his young life.
We thanked him profusely, but we wanted to handle the job ourselves. Confession: it probably took quite a bit longer than it should have. We were still getting the hang of this sukkah-building thing, being newbies.
Nonetheless, we got it up without any assistance, and I remember being absolutely blown away when seeing it completed. We had a real sukkah — albeit a tiny one — in our backyard, like Jews are supposed to have. I took several photos and sent them to friends and family members around the country, all of whom were pretty impressed (or at least said they were).
One of my first orders of business was to grab a harmonica and play a joyful tune in the sukkah (which must’ve seemed a bit odd, and perhaps even painful, to my neighbors). It was my personal take on the holiday, a harp in the tarp, if you will. Maybe it will catch on as a Sukkot tradition.
We went about decorating the sukkah with strings of lights, lines of faux harvest items and scads of kids’ artworks. Naturally, we ate lots of meals in there and my kids insisted on sleeping out there on occasion, something that frankly was not so fun and adorable on nights when the cold winds blew hard and felt like they might knock the sukkah off its foundation and collapse upon us in our slumber.
Fortunately, that never happened. The little sukkah stood up to the fickle winds of nature.
Over the years, as my kids got bigger and older, my wife and I vowed to get a new, larger and arguably better sukkah while stuffing all of the beams, schach and tarp in our shed once the holiday came to an end. We realized we outgrew our original starter sukkah years ago.
Still, for some reason, we’ve never gotten around to getting another one. Chalk it up to sheer inertia. All through the year, the whole issue of acquiring a new sukkah tends to lie dormant until the holiday arrives, and then it’s too late. (Also, nu, the starter sukkah still gets the job done.)
But maybe, playing armchair psychiatrist here, there’s a little part of us that still enjoys the intimacy, familiarity and — shall we say — poignant discomfort of the sukkah. It’s always quite tight in there when we’re all together, but there we are, forced to stare each other in the eye and put down our electronic gadgets and actually make conversation and eat in the sukkah and even play games if we choose.
This year, with the approach of Sukkot, my wife and I were convinced this would be the first year that we’d forego schlepping out what we’ve come to refer to as “the little sukkah that could.” After all, my son is away at school and my daughter, who recently graduated from college, is a young adult now. We figured huddling in a sukkah this year probably wasn’t in the cards, and with the pandemic who’s really in the mood?
But at some point, as my frum neighbors began pounding away at building their sukkahs before Yom Kippur, my daughter suddenly asked, “Oh yeah, it’s going to be Sukkot soon. When are we putting up our sukkah?” Maybe it was more our tradition of noshing on s’mores in the sukkah that was her primary incentive, but it still seemed like a natural to her for us to gather in the sukkah this year.
So sure enough, my wife and I wasted no time and started digging out that tattered old sukkah from the shed and put it up fairly quickly. Anything to keep another Jewish family tradition going. It’s back on my patio as I write this column, the “Energizer Bunny” of sukkahs everywhere. Like Mike Tyson, Rasputin and Dracula, nothing can keep this flimsy tabernacle down.
I frankly don’t know how many more years we have left with the little sukkah that could. It’s getting older and a bit frayed and battered. But for now, we’re enjoying our time together in there. Bring on the s’mores.