It’s hard to muster the energy to build a sukkah that is going to be devoid of your family and friends. Even harder to invest the time in decorating one.
Six months into Israel’s coronavirus crisis and two weeks into our second lockdown, we are about to celebrate Sukkot, when it’s illegal for our adult children and our grandson, who live beyond the one-kilometer mobility limitation, to join us in our temporary makeshift home. It’s illegal for our friends to join us, whether for a meal or a visit, even if they live within range, and even if we would be outdoors and vigilant about masks, distance, and hand hygiene when together. And it’s impossible for my mother, whose home in New York has not had a sukkah for some 30 years, to travel to Israel to be with her daughters and grandchildren, as she usually does.
It is tempting not to go through the effort, and to erect a sukkah with just the bare necessities: walls, a roof to provide shade, and a source of light for the evenings.
But for me, decorating a sukkah is a transformative experience. As canvas walls topped by bamboo mats and palm fronds sprout paper chains and paper cuts, placards and greeting cards, tinsel and glitter, my makeshift temporary home turns into a shimmering, magical shelter, surrounding me with memories and reflected light. And as I unpack our boxes of decorations, I realize that while the government may have locked me down physically, it cannot lock down my spirit, and it can’t keep my children out of my sukkah, because they are there all around me.
My sukkah connects me not just to my ancient ancestors, who sat in huts in the desert while escaping the slavery of Egypt, but to my parents. Ten years after I moved to Israel, the wall hangings that I made for their sukkah in New York made aliyah as well, and now adorn the walls of my rooftop shelter. My favorites are diamond-shaped wall hangings, made of construction paper and shiny patterned wallpaper. My mother taught me how to make them, by cutting and interweaving sheets of paper, carefully threading them through each other, stretching their limits, taking care not to tear them, and never using tape or glue. Perhaps, someday, it’s a skill that I will pass down to my grandchildren, and they can become another link in this family craft chain.
My sukkah connects me not only to the sukkah of my youth, but to all the sukkot of my own family’s history, whether built on rooftops, on balconies, or in gardens. It even includes remnants from the symbolic indoor-sukkah that we made in the dining room of our apartment in Boston, where, for three years, we had no sukkah of our own. Our 3-year-old, now a father himself, joined us in making brightly colored posters from paper and spangles, which we hung on our windows so as to feel like we were in a sukkah when it was too cold or too late to trudge to the local synagogue to use theirs. Big Bird and Cookie Monster joined us in our sukkah that year, and have been with our family ever since.
My sukkah is a time capsule that connects me to my children’s past. Each ancient artifact unpacked from our box of decorations carries with it the memory of pudgy fingers covered in glue, a tongue peeking out between lips closed in concentration, faces smeared with streaks of fingerpaint, and hours of blissful cutting and pasting. They include an upcycled X-ray spiral with neon spots made in kindergarten, a sparkly wish for a future with lots of money, and the tacky plastic welcome sign that one of my boys won as an underwhelming prize for making the best model sukkah in his school: a gorgeous construction made of lady fingers and chocolate, that was decorated with gum drops and gummy worms, and was eventually devoured by a group of second graders. Now adults, my sons are a bit embarrassed by their early works, but I cherish the living archaeology.
My sukkah is a travelogue. Its décor includes the stained-glass light fixture we bargained for at the shuk in Istanbul, the wooden birds we brought back from the game reserve in South Africa, the Jewish-star shaped snowflake purchased in Italy, and a disco ball bought on the boardwalk in Eilat. Some people set aside good food for Shabbat whenever they encounter it during the week; when our family travels, we keep our eyes open for something that can beautify our sukkah. This year, as these keepsakes swivel and twirl under the stars, they will give me hope that someday the skies will open up and we will travel again, making new family memories to add to our sukkah memory bank.
My sukkah is a symbol of gratuitous love. It is filled with flags we have been given over the years from Christian pilgrims from all over the world who march in Jerusalem on the interim days of the festival each year, showering us with handshakes, and trinkets, and good wishes. This year, they are staying home in Brazil and Argentina, Korea and Kenya, Germany, Italy, Hungary, China, the Philippines and more. Hopefully by next Sukkot, it will be safe for them to return, and we will once again line the streets of Jerusalem to cheer them on.
My sukkah is full of invisible guests. Usually, those are the “ushpizin,” transcendent biblical figures who join us on each night of the holiday. This year, the virtual guests in my lockdown sukkah will include our children, our grandson, our family, and our friends. We will hang magnet wedding photographs of them on its supportive metal frame, taking Pesha and Elli Fischer up on the best sukkah-decorating hack since the invention of Christmas lights. We will hang out with them there on Zoom during the week. And we will look forward to the time when we can celebrate together in real life.
My lockdown sukkah connects me to the future. It includes a drawing of a sukkah that my grandson, now a year and a half old, specially colored for us with crayons, some of which he ate. We would have sufficed with hanging a scanned printout, but his essential worker mom and my essential worker husband met on their way to their respective hospitals and exchanged the essential drawing. Now, the most precious item in our sukkah is a Guy Be’eri original, which I hope is the first of many. Someday, like his uncles, he will undoubtedly be embarrassed by his early work. But for me, it will be a reminder of our year in lockdown, when God gave us lemons and we turned them into Sukkot lemonade, as we sat beneath a canopy of peace and love, surrounded by memories, and dreaming of a brighter future.