Many traditions in Judaism seem curious to outsiders: blowing the shofar, all-nighters on Shavuot, getting drunk on Purim and of course trying to figure out what in the world Shemini Atzeret is when you have the day off at Brandeis (it’s the eighth day of Sukkot). But I think the most special kind of weirdness is reserved for Sukkot.
Loving the outdoors and giving thanks for harvest is a theme that is pretty easy to get your head around. Particularly as the season changes to fall where I live in New England, there’ s a happy union of fall, cool weather, apple harvests and fleece jackets that makes you feel deeply appreciative of the fact that you live in a place where seasons really matter.
But take that fall obsession and weave some truly fascinating Jewish rituals into the mix and you are left with a quintessential blend of crisp weather, the harvest and Sukkot. After all, it’s not every day that you parade around with palm, myrtle, and willow branches bound together whilst clutching a citron in your hand. And it’s certainly not every day that you whack that aforementioned greenery into the ground like you do on Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot). But with Sukkot you definitely get both, and explaining that to your friends and/or spouse is always amusing.
Growing up as a relatively educated and quasi-observant Jew, I did lots of Jewish stuff. I went to services most weeks, was very involved in camp and youth group and visited Israel. But through all that I had never done the most common act on Sukkot: built a sukkah in my yard! But after 26 years of missing out, my wife and I put our heads together in 2004, invited my incredibly motivated and fully tool-equipped brother-in-law over, and went to Home Depot to get sukkah materials. After three days we had what was more like a new wing on our house than a typical sukkah, but it was something pure, something new and something that it took my wife and her brother, who are not Jewish, to come to fruition.
Since that massive sukkah that was in fact too big to bring to Bedford from Arlington when we moved years later, we’ve had wildly different Sukkot. We’ve done a half-hearted porch sukkah with simple gourds and fall accoutrements thrown on a collapsible table. We’ve used plastic lattice panels braced against our house with corn stalks from Wilson Farm thrown over top. Recently, we’ve taken to using spare fence pieces, bamboo poles and huge logs from our woodpile to set up a very earthy, very rude, very easy-to-put-up-and-take down booth on our back deck. The beauty of building a sukkah is that you can totally improvise, and living next to a little wooded area gives us a constantly renewing supply of materials to use for construction.
Sukkot is perhaps the singular example for me and my wife of something Jewish that neither of us had growing up; I was a Jewish kid who never had a sukkah, and she was a, well, Catholic girl who probably never saw a sukkah until she went to college. Finding this ritual that we have been able to embrace, define and build together has been a beautiful exercise in creating a meaningful family tradition. With our ever-changing sukkah design and our unique traditions like the Sukkot Squash Festival and Monday Night Football Cranberry Bread that we’ve added into our bag of tricks, Sukkot has become the Jewish holiday that I most look forward to sharing with my family each year.