Judy Karin: In the Fall We Build a Fort
In the fall, we build a fort.
I have a childhood memory: we’re stuck in traffic, on the way to visit my grandparents in Queens. I glance out the window and see a field of – I don’t know, it looks like giant ferns. It’s a sea of green, with…black things? bobbing around in it. “What the heck is that?” My parents turn to look. A murmured conversation I can’t hear from the back seat, and then – “oh, it’s the chasidim, cutting the ferns for the sukkah.” I did not completely understand this response, but I filed it away; the memory came back to me, decades later.
In most generic calendars you can usually find Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If Sukkot is there at all, it’s called the “Feast of Booths” or “tabernacles”. But the word “booth” always conjured images of red vinyl-padded benches in the diners my friends and I frequented in high school, and “tabernacles” made me think of the Mormons and their choir – neither of which have anything to do with Sukkot.
This fall harvest festival is known as zman simchateinu, the season of our joy. We’re commanded to build a temporary dwelling – a sukkah – live in it for a week, and Be Joyful! There are many rituals and symbols associated with Sukkot, but the real joy of the season is building a sukkah and spending time in it.
Years ago, around the time we bought our house, Rabbi Cohen wrote a piece for a local publication, urging Santa Barbara’s Jews to celebrate Sukkot. He challenged us to grab our tools and follow our instinctive urge to build a fort. My husband took the bait: that fall, with a baby and a three-year-old underfoot, we built our own sukkah for the first time. Now, it’s our favorite holiday.
–When our kids were little, they built forts in the living room. They threw blankets and beach towels over dining room chairs, then curled up inside, reading and making up stories. Sukkot calls to that same impulse: building a temporary shelter – fun, in part, because of its improvised and impermanent nature.
Of course, there are requirements for building a kosher sukkah: For example, it must have at least 2½ walls. (Ours has 3½.)
The roof must be made of something that was alive – hence, the fern-gathering folks I saw in Queens! Here in Santa Barbara, palm fronds are a favorite roof material; bamboo mats are popular, too, for the palm-tree-deprived. The sukkah roof is called “schach” – a word that is almost impossible for the uninitiated to pronounce (which, for me, adds to the fun of saying it). The schach must give more shade than sun, but still allow us to see the stars through it at night.
For several years, the Santa Barbara city arborist would arrange to trim all the city’s palm trees so that the Jewish community could have the fronds just in time for Sukkot. Those giant palm fronds made a wonderful schach – worth the many scratches and spider bites I sustained while loading them in and out of our minivan, hauling them to the back patio, and hoisting them up the ladder.
Unfortunately, that arborist left some years ago, and our palm frond supply disappeared. I found some rustic bamboo blinds at the hardware store, threw some scrawny branches from our dwarf palms on top, and voila – More shade than sun in the hot afternoon, stars peeking through at night. Perfect.
Some people make their sukkah very luxurious, with drapes, soft cushions, even carpets. Others, like ours, are more…humble.
The frame is my husband’s job. At first, he’d forgo hardware and lashed 2x4s together with ropes, but after a year or two he brought out the power tools. The structure grew to 8 feet by 12 feet. The side wall frames remain bolted together now, and hang in a place of honor in our garage 11 months of the year; the remaining 2x4s are stored in the rafters. Every year, right after Yom Kippur, he maneuvers the lumber out of the garage and assembles the frame on the back patio.
Over the next four days I do the rest: hang the walls, made of old sheets and curtains; install the blinds and greenery on top; and set up the folding table, finishing just in time for the full moon, when Sukkot begins.
In keeping with the concept of “hiddur mitzvah”, which means, basically, “Do the thing, and make it as beautiful as you can,” we decorate. Large hangings with the ushpizin and ushpizot (the biblical guests tradition says we should invite to our sukkah) adorn the west and south walls of our sukkah; colorful Hebrew prayer flags hang in the opening and across the interior. I fasten festive strings of orange and white lights around the perimeter and under the schach.
The eastern wall is an old bedsheet that I decorated with my children when they were little, using paints, markers, and stencils. The last time my youngest was home during Sukkot, she looked at this wall and said, “Gah, mom, you’ve got to stop using that! It’s so ugly! At least cut off the stupid scribbles.”
I never liked the scribbles, to be honest, and I’ve toyed with the idea of cutting out the nice bits and attaching them to a new, clean sheet. But now that my kids are grown and not here with us, I like having their childhood scribbles to remind me of those early years.
When they were younger, they invited friends every year to come make paper chains and other decorations. Sometimes they all wrote special wishes on the paper links: “happiness”, “peace”, “friendship”, “pie for breakfast”. One year, they made paper fruit, and for years we strung their small construction paper apples from the roof beams. There was also a banana, a purple bunch of grapes that faded to gray, and a pineapple. When I finally had to recycle the paper fruit last year, I cried.
The fourth half-wall is another old sheet, with a faded “Welcome Guests” written at the top. Inviting guests is an important Sukkot tradition, and every guest to our sukkah is handed a sharpie, to trace their hand on the wall and write their name and the date.
For years, I had my tutoring students work at the table in the sukkah. Friends and family came for supper. If my kids had friends over to help decorate or do homework, their parents were dragged into the sukkah when they came to pick up their offspring. Every one of them was handed a marker – and now we have a colorful record of guests going back almost two decades.
By the time our kids were in high school they rarely graced our dinner table at all, but they’d still invite their friends to come for dinner in the sukkah. I loved sitting out there under the stars, listening to these interesting young people.
One day last September, my mom called. “I interrupt something?” she asked. “Just finishing the sukkah,” I said.
“You’re building a sukkah this year?”
“Of course,” I said, “Why wouldn’t we?”
“I don’t know, I thought with this virus and being stuck at home, and the girls not being here, maybe you wouldn’t bother.”
There were no new handprints added to our wall last year. But with the pandemic, and being stuck at home, and the girls both far away, it seemed more important than ever to build the sukkah. With the days, weeks, and months running into each other, we need to mark the cycles of the year to keep from losing our moorings.
This year, my older daughter and her fiancé came from Minnesota to visit between Yom Kippur and the first day of Sukkot. They invited one of her high school friends over, and the three of them made colorful paper chains. My soon-to-be-son-in-law hung the new decorations from the schach, and he and my daughter added a pair of handprints to the wall. As the full moon rose we ushered in the holiday with the appropriate blessings. After dinner we stayed out there for hours, playing a game, laughing, and loving being together; in the morning we brought out our breakfast, and had our first go at the ancient raindance with the lulav and etrog.
Every morning I look out the window and see our sukkah on the patio, and get a blast of joy. Once again, my husband and I will eat all our meals out there until it’s time to take it down. A few feet from our back door, yet far away from politics, the virus, the news. In the sukkah – under the stars, or shaded from the sun – my fists and jaw unclench. Our little fort gives us room to breathe. The walls decorated with artwork and handprints join us to our younger selves, to our family and friends. Built with natural materials and adorned with gourds from my garden, it provides a connection to nature and to the cycle of the seasons. Its temporary nature reminds us that nothing lasts forever and we should be joyful while we can, before the world grows darker and we begin our descent into winter.
Judy Karin came to Santa Barbara 35 years ago to complete a PhD in ultrafast optoelectronics at UCSB, and never left. She’s been a cantorial soloist, teacher, b’mitzvah tutor, wife, and mom, and is currently the director of CBB’s Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Read her previous essays for the CBB Voices Blog: “Teshuvah for Everyone?” and “But the Zucchini, Of Course, Will be Fine.“