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I guess I’m building a sukkah!

Grabbing his trusty Bob the Builder hammer to construct a memory of a journey in the desert

One normal uneventful day, I was literally stepping into the shower, when I heard the beep beep of a large vehicle reversing into my driveway. I peeked through the curtain, and saw my local rabbi exiting a truck accompanied by a horde of Holy Warriors (meaning his brother-in-law and other family members). I mouthed the words Holy… – and quickly closed the curtains, rushing to get dressed. He then entered my backyard accompanied by a small forest of palm tree branches. After he had left, I realised that in my haste to get dressed, I had ended up putting on my shirt the wrong way round! As I stood there alone in the backyard, ankle deep in leaves and branches, my grass covered in a small forest, my shirt back to front — I was filled with a sudden realisation. I guess I’m building a sukkah!

When I was young, I remember building a sukkah with my family. It was one of the most enjoyable times of my youth. But as time wore on, many of those childhood events seemed to fall by the wayside… an inevitability of kids getting older I suppose.

Now, I’m not the most religious type. Or the most observant. I don’t attend synagogue much, but I go from time to time. I have my traditions, enough to be called a religious nut by one group, or a completely irreligious nut by another. My heart is in the right place – and by that I mean located just behind and slightly left of the breastbone. But this year, the inspiration to make a difference has come from my local rabbi, who despite my shortcomings, has yet to give up on me!

There are some people who are naturals at building things who have nails in their blood and wood chips in their bones. You can give them a wooden plank, two nails and a hammer – and they’ll build a Taj Mahal. Me – I’m not one of them. I’m the kind of guy who finds Ikea intimidating. Any store that you need a forklift license to shop isn’t really for me. When I follow instructions on building a table, it will usually end up a chair – with three legs. When I do manage to complete something, there are always a few nails left over and a couple of wooden beams.

Anyway, along with my father-in-law who actually is a builder, I decided that we were going to build a sukkah! So my father-in-law started firing a range of questions at me, which was like the equivalent of Julius Caesar speaking to Papa Smurf. I just agreed with everything, because I’m really not going to argue with a builder about 3 inch nails and pine wood. So I borrowed one of my son’s old toy tool kit, and got to work. The nice thing about the hammer I was using is that it played the Bob the Builder theme music every time I swung it. So after quite a few hours the frame of the sukkah was built and it looked amazing.

The next day I worked on the sukkah myself. Using some canvas for the walls I hammered in the nails, then climbed on top of the ladder and started laying the leaves for the roof, called the s’chach. Now if you’ve ever worked with palm tree branches – it’s like ramming your hand through a bunch of needles. I had so many red pricks on my arms that it looked like I had just had an allergy test! Anyway, after a day of hard work, my father-in-law arrived unexpected as usual, examined my work and after five seconds told me this is drek! He then starting muttering in Polish and Hebrew, telling me this would fall over, that would fall down and shaking his head. I tried to argue with him, but considering my sukkah was now looking like the leaning sukkah of Melbourne, I was forced to agree, especially as there was a storm approaching, and the last thing my non-Jewish neighbours needed was to see a sukkah flying through the air and landing in their backyard! So after an entire day of blood, sweat and tears, my father-in-law tore it down in just a few minutes.

The next day, we began again, putting up walls and leaves amid arguments about nail lengths – it was finally done with me pretending to help in the same way a guy looks into the bonnet of his car when it breaks down – not having a clue as to what’s going on in there! The fun part then began and all the family began to join in, decorating the walls, hanging up lights, arguing about whether coloured lights should be hung on top or at the side. Even my kids, whose idea of a sukkah was a downloadable app, were forced to admit they actually enjoyed something that wasn’t electronic. Eventually, it all came together and our first guests will be arriving tomorrow to take part in the festival of Sukkot.

So as I sat outside, in my first sukkah, with the spring breeze gently pushing back the leaves above me, revealing the distant stars, it made me think of the festival of Sukkot itself. Jews are a people of memory – we remember things. Things that other people have forgotten about, we continue to remember — like my late grandmother who never spoke to my aunt for thirty years, because she refused to take a parcel to Israel on a trip. Of course the parcel consisted of three suitcases, a train set and a stove…

So we remember things and with Sukkot, we are remembering our journey in the desert where we wandered for forty years before we ended up in Israel. Now, that might have very little meaning or relevance to other people, but to me, it’s a symbol of how the things we do today connects us to the things we did thousands of years ago. It is part of the strength and bond between Jews worldwide wherever we live. It is easy to forget in our fast paced lives about traditions and customs and I am as guilty of that as anyone, but this year for the first time in a very long time, I’m choosing to slow down – even if it’s just for a moment – and remember something that was done by my ancestors all those years ago.

I don’t know if that will change the world, but this year for that one brief moment, I will be back in the desert sitting alongside my distant relatives and wondering what will lie ahead, wondering what the future will bring, wondering when I will finally make it to the Promised Land.

About the Author
Justin Amler is a South African born, Melbourne based writer who has lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.