Thursday, October 1, 2009

Building a Tabernacle in our Backyard

The stress and emotion of Yom Kippur quickly gave way to facing the building of our succa for the Feast of Tabernacles (the bizarre English translation for the holiday of Sukkot, shelters).  Living in the Northwest, that means it's time to finally trim all the firs and cedars blocking our view that we've let burgeon until just this moment.

We're fortunate to have a surrogate family member we call our "handyman" for lack of a better term (he's been with us for 22 years) to help with the dirty work, but  for the temporary outdoor room we're constructing to be proper, a Jewish person must lay the freshly-cut boughs atop the "roof's" wooden frame.

The way everyone's schedule worked out, that Jew was me.

With a rickety aluminum ladder quaking beneath me, and my trusty associate handing up the prickly branches, I struggled to place the 5- and 6-foot-long trimmings astride the beams ten feet in the air.  I needed to cover the enclosure to preclude gaping holes, ideally with enough "skach" (greenery) to at least briefly fend off likely drizzles and showers for the week-long festival.

The nighttime air was brisk, and a blue-edged circle formed an angelic corona around the gibous moon.  The spires of dahlias grown leggy in their patio pots were a strange audience for my death-taunting endeavor.  After each branch was laid, I clambered down the wobbly ladder to move it a few inches, making my way around the whole 20-by 10-foot perimeter, and down the center.  Each new placement of the ladder was fraught with peril, as it teetered on uneaven pebble-pocked hardscape.

The boughs, still damp, bent easily, but sharp splinter-thorns occasionally pierced my fingers, and gooey sap oozed onto my hands.  The flat, leathery cedar fronds felt oddly inorganic, but the Douglas Fir cuttings provided the needly reminder that our succa was a true Northwest product.

The walls of the succa can be nearly anything, and to preserve our lake view and any precious sunlight, I'd chosen thick sheets of clear plastic.  Now that the skach is up, I'll bring out my boxes of decorations--tinsly colored garlands, a tin-foil looped chain my children made years ago, strings of grape-shaped garden lights, and dried ears of speckled corn.  We'll unfurl the decades-old posters of the "uspezim," the forefathers who we welcome as "guests" each night in our succa, and the artsy drawings of the seven biblical food "species."  We've already polished the silver etrog case, and tomorrow night we'll pick up its fragrant fruit, part of the "arba minim," (myrtle, palm and willow branches, and the etrog) that are shaken together daily in perhaps the weirdest of Jewish rituals.

So there I was, in the dark, teetering on a jiggly ladder, hurling enormous fronds on a temporary frame on our patio.  Was this fun?

Ummm...actually, yes.

Sukkot is "the time of our rejoicing," and having my entire family together and home, and soon, sitting outside in our heavy coats sipping soup is something no modern wizard could have cooked up.  But its very oddness makes it memorable and special and worthwhile.  There's no autumn that slips by unnoticed--dining with the wind whipping through the branches, we not only remember our vulnerability--already in the forefront of our minds after fasting and praying all day on Yom Kippur--but we create shared memories that only such strange experiences can bring.  Just as camping outdoors is more eventful than staying in a hotel room, spending a week "dwelling" in our succa, with downpours and "disasters" (eg. the year our "skach" was found to be populated by zillions of little worms unable to defy gravity) provides highlights for our days and our relationships.

Chag Sameach--happy Sukkot--and may your rejoicing not include worms!


  1. I just saw the movie "Ishpizin" a few weeks ago. Are you expecting any unsavory visitors who might bestow additional blessings?

  2. Ruth Anne, just the usual suspects...Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, et. al....
    Great flick, eh?

  3. It was very good. I got the recommendation for it from a certain film reviewer's top 10 list. That same reviewer recommended "St. Ralph" which required a lot less translation for me.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I was trying to figure out what Sukkot was and why so many places where closed during that time.