In Search of a Succah

Succot in Jerusalem courtyard
Succot in Jerusalem courtyard

When we rented our new apartment, the biggest problem I saw was lack of built in storage space. The two closets were tiny, and the kitchen didn’t have enough cabinets for all the pots and plastic containers. Allen maintained that the biggest problem was that we had nowhere to build a succah.

Living in a succah, a temporary structure, is a requirement of the holiday of Succot. It is commandment given by G-d to Moses in the Torah. That means it is Important. We built our first succah in the back yard of our house in Pennsylvania when Daniel was four years old. For the next forty years, we erected the flimsy structure every fall. After we added a deck to the house, we moved the succah up there, closer to the kitchen. After we made aliyah, we bought a succah kit and put it together in the courtyard of our apartment building, neatly wedged in between the succot of two neighbors. Almost every meal out there was shared with invited guests.

Although in many parts of the world, “living” in the succah is interpreted as eating all your meals there for the week, in Israel many people also sleep in theirs. Why not? It is still summer, and summer means dry. The rainy season officially begins the day after Succot ends, when we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret. Occasionally we have rain here during the holiday, but generally it is a light rain, barely enough to dampen the ground. Rarely, it rains hard enough to chase everyone inside.

Succot on Jerusalem Old City balconies
Succot on Jerusalem Old City balconies

We do have a succah porch in the apartment, technically. Although most of the balcony to our salon is overshadowed by the balcony of the apartment above us, ours is a little longer than the one upstairs. The extension is covered by a plastic roof that can be removed to make a succah. A very small succah, big enough for one person to sit in the dappled shade of a temporary roof of palm leaves or bamboo stalks; a succah for a solitary breakfast. IF we can loosen the rusty screws that hold the plastic roof in place. And if we can move the large closet out of the way.

The building has a small parking lot, but the spots are designated for specific apartments. Our apartment’s spot has been rented the man who lives in our storage area in the building’s basement. He has rented the storage area and parking space for 17 years. The parking spot is not available for our succah. We discovered that our parking lot, unlike many in the neighborhood, does not turn into a succah village for the holiday.

Without our own succah, we would have to rely on invitations from friends and family to observe one of the core mitzvot of the holiday. This would be both inconvenient and socially awkward. It would be inconvenient because we still would have no place to go for breakfast or most lunches. The idea of calling friends and dropping hints that we needed invitations for meals gave me the desire to lose my phone. I wouldn’t be dropping hints, either—I’d be begging.

Aviel, Allen’s chevruta (study partner), who lives in the next door

Minimalist succah at Old City restaurant: mesh walls just barely high enough to count, roof of plant origin
Minimalist succah at Old City restaurant: mesh walls just barely high enough to count, roof of plant origin

building, offered us his neighbor’s succah. The neighbor builds a large succah every year and after celebrating the first day in it, goes away for the rest of the holiday. The succah would be available, if we wanted to use it. Calling the neighbor, whose name I never learned, became our fall-back option.

As the holiday got closer we watched neighbors building their succot. Allen started scouting around for a possible spot to build our own. By Friday morning, two days before the holiday was to begin, two succot were built to the right of the building entrance, taking up several parking spaces. To the left of the entrance was a small garden space—a patch of ground that might be a garden if someone tended and watered it. It was empty earth, and no one had claimed it. But it was narrow and uneven.

Beyond that was another, wider area, similarly untended. But its surface was too uneven and rocky and also unsuitable.

The garden area was wider along the street, and fairly level. If we didn’t mind the sound of the light rail trains passing by every six minutes and the constant traffic except on Shabbat, it might work.

Allen carried two of the metal roof supports down to see if the place was big enough for our succah. It was.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

With the help of our grandson Yakov and Ann (Aliza’s mother), Allen started to build our succah in the area along Herzl Boulevard. When I carried some of the supplies down, I saw a man standing on the sidewalk and pointing at the succah. I asked him if he usually built in that spot.

“No,” he replied, in Hebrew much more fluent than mine. “We already built—up there.” He pointed at the succah on the top floor balcony across the alley.

He soon left, but his son, a friend of Yakov’s stayed a little while to help. A few minutes later, another neighbor stopped by and helped finish putting the metal frame together. Succah building, even when using a pre-fab succah kit, is a skill. It is a skill that religious Israelis master at a young age even though they use it only once a year.

Saturday night, Daniel and Aliza came over to help Allen put the roof on. We had a kosher succah!

Since no succah is complete without decorations, the next morning Yakov returned with Moshe and Sara to decorate. For a while, it looked like Sara’s help would be restricted to keeping out of the way by climbing up and down the extra step stool, brought down from the apartment specifically for her to sit on. But then she noticed all the decorations were being hung from the ceiling or at the top of the walls. So she undertook decorating the lower walls. This is the first year our succah has pictures hanging at knee level.

Now all we need is guests. Human guests.

Our succah on Herzl Boulevard at night
Our succah on Herzl Boulevard at night

As usual, our first evening we learned there was a nest a large black ants nearby. We had not brought any food into the succah yet, but there they were, crawling around inside, scouting out the opportunities.

The local feral cats have also explored our temporary structure. Tuesday, about five minutes after Allen set the table and came back upstairs, I heard a knock on the door. A young boy stood there. He introduced himself as living upstairs from us.

“There’s a cat on your table,” he said.

Not sure what he was talking about, I repeated, “A cat on our table?”

“Yes, a cat on your table.” He pointed down the stairs.

“Oh. How did he do that?” I knew it was a male cat because the boy had said chatul, not chatula. Despite my correct grammar, I think I sounded like the village idiot at this point.

“He climbed.”

Well, yes. So I thanked him for telling me, and he went back to his friends.

When we took dinner down to the succah, not knowing what the cat might have done once he had climbed on the table, I also took clean dishes, forks, and napkins. The cat was under the table; he ran out as soon as I walked in. During dinner, several other cats wandered by, hoping, no doubt, for a taste of our meal.

Part of the commandment to observe the holiday of Succot is to be “only happy.” You can sense it in the streets, particularly in the evening as people wander from succah to succah. We visit friends, sitting in their succah for a while, enjoying a little something to eat, and thanking G-d for the mitzvah of succah. As late as 10 or 11 at night, families are out walking, enjoying the holiday, even if the youngest need to be carried or have fallen asleep in their strollers. Who cares about bedtime? It’s a holiday, to be enjoyed.

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