When your family’s Sukkot tradition involves visiting a sukkah built by someone else, constructing a harvest hut of your own doesn’t come up. Even after my husband and I had kids, a brief shake of the lulav in the synagogue sukkah always sufficed. A couple of years ago, we decided that building our own would really be more meaningful. We made this decision the day before Sukkot. It didn’t go well.
So last year, when I got a hankering to try again, I was a mother on a mission. I banished the memory of that first attempt with its rickety supports and last-minute walls fashioned from a paint-spattered drop cloth. This time we’d involve the kids; make it festive! Accommodating as always, my husband designed a new, sturdier model, necessitating only a few two-by-fours. We were good to go.
The next week, I let slip to someone at shul that we we were building a sukkah. A moment later I heard myself agreeing to host a Sukkot potluck for neighborhood members of the congregation. Hoo boy. We’d really have do it up right, now that the tribe was coming. But what, exactly, did “right” entail?
My husband, one of those stereotype-defying handy Jews, would build a frame; the walls were my department. Turning to the Internet, I discovered a respectable, established tradition–among last-minute sukkah builders, it’s true–of using shower curtains. It sounded easy enough. We stopped at Target one day and I made my husband inspect and opine on every curtain in stock. He did this uncomplainingly. We settled on a vaguely Biblical striped pattern in autumn colors. They were $25 each and we needed three, but I reasoned that this was a long-term purchase. I exited the store, clutching the receipt printed $75, and it hit me: I was in way too deep. In my right mind, would I spend nearly 100 dollars on shower curtains? To be used once a year? I fretted all the way home, and the next day my husband returned the curtains for me on his way to work. I relaxed.
At Goodwill, I found an assortment of red drapes. Apparently there is a great deal of buyer’s remorse associated with this particular shade of window decor. They did sort of say bordello, but there weren’t enough matching curtains in any other hue. Besides, they had sewn-on loops, ready to hang. When my husband saw the Goodwill curtains (total price $17) he praised my thriftiness and good sense. Then he began referring to our sukkah as “the red tent.” I ignored this.
Instead, I turned to the Internet for tips on decorating. This was a mistake. Forty-five minutes later I was still at the computer, mesmerized by this previously unknown world of Jewish crafts. One creative mother cuts Hebrew letters out of felt and hot-glues them on colorful banners to hang. Another decorates her sukkah with paper strips folded into elaborate rosettes. My husband looked over my shoulder and said, “That woman has way too much time on her hands.” I admired these mothers’ ingenuity and energy, but snapped out of my trance. Did I really want to cut out felt letters? I did not.
After Yom Kippur, my husband and I assembled the frame of the sukkah, assisted by the one child not too surly to help. We laid hazel branches and stalks of bamboo on the roof. Midway through, it started drizzling. We decided to delay putting up the curtains, which would only get wet and molder. The bare frame looked forlorn in the rain.
The next day, my husband stopped at the Jewish supply store to pick up the lulav and etrog. The Chabadniks who run the place were just putting up their own sukkah when he got there, but a stiff breeze kept knocking it down. Compared to ours, he said, it looked wimpy and ramshackle. He flexed his muscles with a mock grin of triumph. “They may be super-Jews, but our sukkah can withstand gale-force winds!”
The rain let up the night before the potluck. My husband and I strung the red curtains around the walls. With its roof of branches and scarlet curtains, the sukkah looked airy and whimsical, the sort of place Oberon and Titania might stop to eat a pomegranate or two.
That evening, my boys and I sat at the dining room table, making popcorn strings to hang in the sukkah. I used to do this as a kid, to decorate the secular Christmas tree my indifferently Jewish dad never objected to, but I didn’t mention that. My husband read aloud The House on the Roof, a classic from 1976 about an old man who builds a sukkah out of crates on his New York City rooftop, decorating it with strings of acorns and autumn leaves. Yeah, I thought. Who needs the fancy stuff? And as I watched my kids string popcorn and listened to my husband read aloud, I smiled, because this scene was exactly what I imagined having a family would be like.