“Want to go schach picking with me?” I asked my best friend of many years. “Schach picking, what’s that?” she asked me. And that’s when I first realized that my family did things differently.
My mom would empty out the back of our car and line it with tarp, then fill it with lots of equipment.
We’d load into the minivan and drive. Where exactly, I’m not quite sure. I know it was past the horse racing track and in the general vicinity of Unique’s thrift store, the store where we all shopped, but never would admit to. (People were mocked in my school “Your clothes are from Unique’s!” but once I saw the mom of a popular girl shopping there too, so anyhow…)
Once there, we’d fall out of the car, and the fun would begin.
The there wasn’t really a “there,” not the type of place anyone would really call a “there.” It was this large area filled with cattails and reeds (and unfortunately, at the time I didn’t yet know that those reeds were the source with all sorts of delicious edible goodies, that taste like cucumbers, among others, or so I’ve heard) and that was where we came every year. It was part of the property around some sort of factory (what they made, I had no clue, but a voice from the far recesses of my mind is shouting out at me “cardboard”) and I was sure people were wondering what we were doing there, with our gardening shears. But we had permission. One year my mom, when asked, told us that the owners were Jewish, and they were fine with us cutting down reeds.
We’d sweat and we’d toil, opening those gardening shears as wide as our little arms would let us, and cut down reed after reed. When we had a large enough pile, we’d transfer it into the open hatchback of my mother’s car. And then we’d go back and do it again until we no longer had any more room. Only then would we go home.
Once we pulled into our drive way, my sister, brother, and I would put together our sukka with our dad. Two sides were wooden, one side was our wall, and one side was the neighbor’s wall. The Basches never minded the little eye hooks in the grout between the bricks in their wall, and the African American family who moved in after them didn’t mind our use of their wall either. That was when I learned how to use a ratchet wrench. We’d work together as a team, the tick tick tick of the wrench the background music to our efforts, getting the unwieldy wooden sukka walls to stop swinging like a door, and instead become one cohesive whole, spanning from one brick wall to the other. And then we’d do the same with the other wall.
Once year, we painted the walls of the sukka with a picture of the Beit Hamikdash. Other years, we added the shivat haminim. And the walls were plastered with contact paper-covered projects we made in school, our collection growing larger each year.
And above it all, our hand-picked schach. The reeds and cattails and bulrushes and whatever else we got into the trunk on our foray.
Our sukka was different from most others in our community. People generally had bamboo schach. But ours? We had the real deal. We had schach that we picked ourselves on a great adventure.
And when Sukkot was over, I loved nothing more than removing the support beams and having the reeds fall down, the dry fluff of the cattails blowing all over, and jumping into the swept up pile of schach with my siblings. Eventually it made it into our backyard into our compost heap, and that fun would wait for another year.
* * *
Coming to Israel, Sukkot was never the same. The first few years, our sukka was a pop up one that my then husband bought when single and living with his mom. It came with a mat of thin bamboo schach (that always blew away, no matter how much we tried to weigh it down), took five minutes to put together, and could seat two people. We used it for years, even as our family grew, even when we had to use a kiddy table in there because we couldn’t fit enough chairs and a regular table. We couldn’t afford something bigger or newer, and in our tiny apartment with no storage we had no room to store wooden sukka walls anyhow. Our tiny little runt of a sukka would be surrounded by our neighbors’ seemingly palatial sukkot. And we’d hear comments from passersby, who thought ours must be a special sukka for children, while the adults got “real” sukkot.
We never really decorated the sukka, because it went up last minute. His family always got together the first day of Sukkot, so we were never home the first day, “which is when the real mitzva is, anyhow.” Decorating the tiny little pathetic sukka with fabric walls was just sad for me. So it rarely happened. And if it did, it was without much effort.
Fortunately, we bought a house, and it comes with a place for a sukka. We just need to add schach, and for that we have bamboo.
It’s really hard for me to get into the mitzva of sukka, I must admit. Growing up, I remember it was filled with so many memories, so much hands on involvement. And it was special.
Now? My kids are with their dad the first day of Sukkot and also Shabbat of Sukkot. I want to do something to make the mitzva of sukka special for my kids, but I don’t know how. And I’m sure that no matter what we do, no matter how I would try to recreate the Sukkot of my childhood, it’ll just fall short.
And so I sit here at home, the night before Sukkot, reminiscing about the Sukkot we used to have, and the experiences I can’t pass on to my children.
And I’m feeling wistful.