You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord, your God. (From (Lev. 23:39-45)I never got to build a tree house growing up. Living in a lower-middle class suburb, surrounded by cement and cookie-cutter houses, there was not a tree to be found that would have been strong enough to hold up my little body, much less a body of architecture of any scale. No, the best I could hope for was that our neighbors would invite us over to camp in their backyard in a little pitched tent. And even then, it was one of those types of tents that pop up practically as soon as you set it down on the well-trimmed and watered backyard lawn.
Really, I never got to build anything growing up. It just wasn't a skill that I seemed to need, or at least it was one that no one bothered to try to teach me. So when I decided that this would be the year that I would build my first sukkah, I went into the project optimistic, ambitious--and with no idea what I was in for.
My first inclination, of course, was to build something sturdy. Something that would be so solid I'd be able to use it next year, and heck, even the year after that! I started looking for building plans online for a sukkah made completely out of PVC. It wasn't too long after mentioning my idea to a few friends when I got a huge blow back. "PVC? Seriously?" one friend asked. "It's got to be made entirely out of natural materials," another told me. I tried to resist this discouragement, insisting that it was the principle of building the sukkah that mattered to me, not the fine print. So I pressed on. It wasn't until I went to a building supply store and saw the price tag attached to PVC that I decided maybe natural materials were a good idea.
I browsed Craigslist and found a listing for someone giving away free wood just down the street from me. Bingo! Maybe natural really was the way to go!
After loading up on free lumber, I began building the skeleton of my little sukkah that same day. It took me about six hours. I was proud of it! I was a builder! Heck, I was even an architect! I called for my fiancee to come out and took a gander at my work.
"So, what do you think?" I asked, flush with pride.
"Um," she said, cocking her head to the side. "Well....it's a good start. But it's kind of...well, honestly, like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I mean....it's going to be bigger than that, right?"
I stared at her dumbfounded. Was she serious? Could she not see the magnificence of this work of mind-numbing genius and backbreaking labor?
Nope, "Honey," she said, "If we're inviting people over to eat in that thing, you'd better make it bigger."
Sigh. It was back to the drawing board!
Having run out of free wood, I dutifully trotted back to the hardware and home improvement store in the next town over, and as luck would have it, found a pile of lumber on sale for $0.79 a piece. If I couldn't get this thing made for free, as least I could get it made cheap!
The next week-and-a-half--knowing that I was going to have to do this by trial and error, I didn't even wait for the Ten Days of Repentance to finish before I got to work--was spent obsessively cutting, sawing, drilling, fastening, and building. I went through a good seven packs of screws, two drills, and a hammer before I was done. I finally had a skeleton to build upon.
Two days before the start of Sukkot, I ran down to the thrift store and bought up all their seventy-nine cent sheets. I hurried home, intent on attaching the sheets to form the walls of my sukkah before what appeared to be an ugly storm would begin.
Using a stapler, I hung up and fastened my thin walls of fabric to the now spacey frame. As soon as I fastened the last corner, I felt the first splash of rain fall upon my brow. "Just in time, I thought to myself." The rain, I was to discover, was the least of my worries.
I turned on my heel and headed indoors. Just as I was about to open the door, a long, aching noise cracked through the air: CREEEEEAAAAAAK!"
Crap. THE WIND!
I ran back around the house. What I thought were going to be simple walls on my sukkah suddenly, in what was steadily growing into a full-out storm, became SAILS. The wind dragged my walls sharply north. Another long CREAAAAAAK. A short silence followed, before the inevitable sound I was fearing finally broke through.
The entirely building began to slump over. I dashed into it, immediately seeing that the center support beam had snapped completely in half, the four outer support beams were beginning to buckle underneath the wind and their own weight. Grasping skyward, I grabbed what was hanging off of what remained from the support beam, and tore it the rest of the way, just to get it out of the way. I ran from corner to corner, trying to slowly balance each leg, leaning them into the wind...but the gusts just blew harder and harder.
I spent the next four hours slowly inching the entire sukkah behind our house where some protection from the wind could be found, first lifting one leg, moving it five inches forward, then rushing to the next leg and doing the same. Then the next leg, then next one after that.
I was soaked to the bone by the time I got it in a safe alcove behind the house.
But I did it. Sure, the center support was now simply a crooked, sharp stump. The place was a mess. But at least it still stood. I went to bed that night exhausted. I felt beaten. I clearly didn't know what I was doing...so why was I wasting my time building this ridiculous fort out of old wooden door frames, basement bargain lumber, and second hand bedsheets. I fell asleep convinced I was giving up.
The next morning I woke to sunlight streaming in my window. I must have overslept, I thought to myself, It's already the afternoon. I looked at my bedside clock radio. Wait. That couldn't be right. It was barely nine? The sun was out, and not a cloud in the sky? That just didn't happen in Olympia. It DEFINITELY didn't happen the day after a storm like the night before.
But, I couldn't deny it. The day was just naturally beautiful. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered, butterflies fluttered.
How could I NOT spend the day outside? I grabbed my toolkit, slipped my kippah on, and went back to work.
I spent the rest of that day adding on some additional supports to the structure of what I was now calling my Sukkito, or little Sukkah. My next door neighbor was in her yard gardening, and called out. "What is that your making?"
I quickly explained that it was a Jewish tradition to build a small temporary fort during this season. "Why doesn't it have a roof?" she asked, and before I could even finish explaining that the roof needed to be permeable, that one needed to be able to see the stars through the ceiling, she was already running back to her yard. After a few minutes, she returned with a big pile of Bamboo. "These will work great!" I cried. "Take as much as you need," she smiled. And I just pruned the bushes, so feel free to use anything you need"
I went straight to work, grabbing branches, vines, leaves, even the huge 8-feet long stalk of a sunflower, to build my roof.
Finally, I was finished, two days after the official start of Sukkot, but with three days left to spare before the big party I had planned for Saturday. I stood outside, proud of my new handiwork. I still had a lot of work to do; I would need to find somewhere to get Lulav and Etrog, something that I knew would be difficult this late in the game. But for now, I had built something entirely with my own hands. I had built something of which I was proud!
That Saturday, many of our friends came over and dwelt in the sukkah with us. I had been unable to procure Lulav and Etrog.. Still I was intent on participating in the feeling of the mitzvah. My fiancee put together a small psuedo-Lulav made from palm and fern leaves and small shoots of bamboo, all held together by rubber bands. And I picked up a lemon.
At exactly 8:00pm, surrounded by friends and garbed in tallit, I performed the rituals of Havdalah, lighting for the first time the braided candle. I led everyone in the blessings of wine, spices, fire, and separation, before putting the glowing flame out in my glass of wine, with an intensely satisfying sizzling sound. Handing out an outline of the blessings for Sukkot, we all said the appropriate blessings, and everyone took turns shaking our little DIY Lulav and Etrog set, East, South, West, North, and then Up and Down. Once everyone shook to their hearts content, I removed my tallit, and shouted "Well, it's a Jewish party.....so let's eat!" and handed out loaves of my vegan challah.
The whole process of building my Sukkito was a times heart breaking, at other times exhilarating, and completely exhausting on every level. I had to learn a lot of the physics of structure and balance purely through trial and error. But in the end, everyone said that even if it wasn't the first sukkah they had even been to--for some guests, it was--it was probably one of the best, and definitely the cutest.
I am certain I'll build a sukkah next year. Now that I've got one under my belt, and I know a little of the pitfalls and frustrations associated with it--and more importantly did it completely all on my own, with my own hands - I think next year's will be bigger, better, and filled with even more laughs and smiles and the simple joy of the simcha of being with friends together, eating and talking, and looking up into the night sky, watching the moon as it sails over us.