Judaism has two major week-long holidays, but one goes largely unobserved in the diaspora. While the Passover Seder has become a touchstone of Jewish identity, the same cannot be said for a meal in a sukkah. The situation is understandable. The High Holidays grab all one’s attention, leaving little room for the observance of Sukkot, except for the Orthodox. Though I observe the holiday, I have to admit that the amount of preparation for it can seem incredibly daunting. Sometimes, I want to laugh at the tradition’s sobriquet for Sukkot: “the time of our happiness.”
For the observant, the approach to Rosh Hashanah means that you also need to be thinking about Sukkot. Enterprising young men help facilitate this by sending you text messages concerning their prices for “Four Species” sets, according to level of attractiveness. On August 18, I also got a whatsapp letting me know of a Four Species program whereby the profit goes to a charity that you designate. While I personally like to shake the lulav and smell the etrog, the first thing I thought about when I received that whatsapp was: Oy, it’s several weeks before Rosh Hashanah and I already have to worry about Sukkot!
Besides the Four Species there is the actual sukkah to get anxious about. Last year, for the first time in my life, I bought a new sukkah. Unlike the traditional wooden-doors sukkah of my youth, this is a modern sukkah made up of interlocking poles, with fabric serving as the walls. [Halachic note: With the ease of modern walls comes a "catch": the billowing of the fabric presents Jewish legal problems; ask your local halachic expert for more details.]
Last year I also bought "forever schach" (and, as its name implies, it should serve us this year and for many more years to come): bamboo matting. In Givat Ze'ev where we used to live, I had resisted this technically kosher schach (the roof of the sukkah is supposed to be taken from something that has grown in the ground) in favor of beautiful, fresh, green schach (taken from the branches of our olive tree). While Sarah and I loved our "messy" sukkah, with branches dipping down from the green canopy above, our kids would complain: why can't we be like everyone else and have a regular sukkah (i.e., a neat and orderly one—either with “forever schach” or with palm fronds).
In Givat Ze'ev our sukkah kept getting bigger and bigger, starting from 2 x 2 meters (6.5 x 6. 5 feet), then going to 2 x 3 meters (with a now legendary story about how Nathan and I convinced a bus driver to let us take several 3-meter wooden cross-beams on a city bus), and ending up with our whole backyard: you were in our sukkah as soon as you opened our back door. If you have anyone who likes to keep the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah (as we did), extra space is always welcome.
Just because something is fun doesn’t mean that it’s tension free. I'm speaking here about decorating the sukkah. The tense part for us was that I preferred to delay the process of cutting the schach so that the olive leaves would not completely dry out before the holiday, whereas Sarah, fearing for her decorations, was loathe to decorate until all the schach was in place.
Finally, and weather permitting (which is always the case in Israel, since the likelihood of rain is tiny, and in a year like this one with "early" holidays it is close to nil), there is the truly enjoyable part of eating in the sukkah. It’s also a lot of work, especially if one has a large family and/or guests to feed; and it’s especially challenging in the diaspora, which has an extra holy day-- with its attendant big holiday meals—tacked on at the beginning of Sukkot.
Is it all worth it? Yes, of course (I’m no masochist). Observing Sukkot is satisfying, pleasurable, and fun (it's also fun to complain!). Like a good deal of life's other experiences, the extent to which you enjoy is directly connected to the time and effort you put into something. And with this time and effort, Sukkot can indeed become "the time of our happiness."
Copyright 2021, Teddy Weinberger