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Monday, September 25, 2017

Super-Sukkah for Sale!

Super-Sukkah for Sale!

September 8, 2017 in 2017 September/October, Featured, Jewish World, Religion
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Image: The author, in jean jacket, with her sister Julie, in the yellow sweater, and a family friend, in the early 1980s.

My father is selling his sukkah. He says it is “priced to sell” at $4,900, but really he just wants to find it a home, which is easier said than done. Dismantled, the thing takes up the better part of a garage. All but the handiest of owners will need to hire helpers to put it up and take it down each fall. It seats 24 “comfortably,” as Dad’s posting on his synagogue listserv put it.

That’s right. Twenty-four people for dinner in a sukkah. Night after night after night. This is no sukkah.com pre-fab kit, nothing like the typically flimsy temporary huts observant Jews put up each fall to commemorate our ancestors’ years of wandering in the desert. This is custom-built by a master carpenter, with its own floor, rain-protected electrical system, a little corner shelf to light candles, and boxes full of prime decorations. This is a sukkah-lover’s sukkah, an Extreme Sukkah, a sukkah for the ages.

It dates to 1973. We had moved the year before to Newton, Massachusetts, a suburban dream come true for my Dad, who’d grown up poor in Dorchester. Although we were not Orthodox, we joined an Orthodox shul, because that’s the kind of shul my Dad went to with his zayde. We got invited that fall to a number of sukkah dinners, and with their warm soups and warm singing, they were so much more fun than High Holiday services. So my two older sisters and I asked what every kid asks about everything: Why don’t we have one of those? We didn’t have to ask twice.

Dad consulted his Uncle Lou, who was a contractor in neighboring Brookline. Uncle Lou hooked Dad up with a carpenter named John. John was Polish, not Jewish, but this was not his first sukkah. He crafted three walls out of 5/8-inch plywood, 2x4s and 2x3s, numbering the pieces like an IKEA kit before its time, and used our house for the fourth wall, as Jewish law permits.  “We painted it and stained it ourselves,” Dad recalled recently.

My father does not do anything halfway, especially anything that involves food. Those early years, we had guests for every dinner of the week-long holiday, and for some lunches, too. And there was always one special afternoon where we invited school friends over for cookies and milk. Since we went to public school, most of those friends were not Jewish, and even the ones who were had never stepped inside a sukkah.

I would explain, as we strung together cranberries and popcorn to adorn the leafy ceiling, that Sukkot was a harvest holiday like Thanksgiving, only better, because it lasted a week. Each night the roster of friends and relatives would change. My Mom, a champion knitter, would put a pile of heavy, handmade sweaters at the door for anyone who had not taken her seriously when she said to dress for eating outside. When it would start to rain—this was autumn in New England, inevitably there was some rain—everyone would grab china and stemware and run inside.

Yes, china and stemware and tablecloths, eventually rented from a catering company that would also provide women to help serve and clean up: These were not picnics, but elaborate multi-course feasts. Two soups: chicken with matzah balls, sure, and maybe beef barley or borscht or butternut squash. Two proteins, too: stuffed chicken breasts and brisket one night, rack of veal or mini lamb chops the next. Sweet-and-sour tongue was a favorite, and stuffed cabbage. Wine and whiskey flowed, and dessert, like everything that came before it, was always homemade.

Uncle Lou and Aunt Fay would come every year. So would Neil, who did my mom’s hair every Friday and was the first gay person I knew I knew; he just lived for Dad’s chopped liver. The Talmud scholars Marvin Fox and Nahum Sarna, members of our synagogue, were sukkah staples. So was my father’s lifelong friend Lenny—before and after his stint in federal prison for racketeering.

There were two years in my childhood without the sukkah: the first when my Mom was going through chemotherapy, and the second after my parents had to sell our home because of financial problems. We moved to a dingy half-basement apartment, where not having a sukkah was relatively low on the list of complaints. Dad told me recently that when they first saw the nondescript two-family they have rented half of for the past 30 years, one thing that sold him was the huge driveway behind the house: “I knew that would be a great place to be able to do the sukkah again.”

Left: The sukkah fully decorated and set for dinner for 20 guests. Top right: The author’s father, Richard Wilgoren, leads two of his grandsons through the blessings over the lulav and etrog in 2005. Bottom right: The entrance to the sukkah welcomes guests with posters and a hanging plant.

Now he needed a fourth wall. John the Polish carpenter was not around anymore, so Dad found some young handymen to do the job. The table wobbled that year on the sloped driveway. Dad’s friend Andrew, the Boston area’s leading kosher caterer, suggested a temporary floor like the ones they use with tents for weddings. It cost $500 the first year; the next, the guys from the temporary-floor company freelanced us a permanent one for $1,000.

I finished high school around this time. Like my sisters before me, I came home from college each year for at least one night of Sukkot, and still when I moved across the country to Los Angeles, and then to Washington, and later New York and Chicago. We kids started inviting guests of our own. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of internet law, came when he was just a whiz-kid law student I helped out with a paper back in college. Marty Baron came when he was editor of The Boston Globe. When I was covering the 2004 presidential race, I brought fellow reporters from the campaign trail. Eventually our husbands came, and then our kids, helping to put up the decorations and set the table and eat and eat and eat.

My favorite sukkah memory is from 1999. It was my Mom’s 60th birthday. I had asked 60 of her closest relatives and friends to each create a page for a scrapbook. After dinner in the sukkah, we paged through the book. When they got to Dad’s page, with the lyrics to Kenny Rogers’ “Through the Years,” he took her hand and sang:

Through all the good and bad
I knew how much we had
I’ve always been so glad
To be with you

Finally, a few years ago, my husband and I got ourselves our own sukkah, not because we’re particularly religious, but because we loved the holiday’s tradition of welcoming guests with abundant food and warmth. We were living in Jerusalem, and there was a sukkah stand on our block. It was a fabric-and-poles number, the opposite of my father’s sturdy sukkah. To make it look different from everyone else’s we asked guests to sign the sheets that formed the walls: the world’s first graffiti sukkah! We couldn’t get cranberries in Jerusalem, so we just strung popcorn and made paper chains to hang from the leafy ceiling.

When we moved back to the United States last year, and into an old Victorian in Montclair, New Jersey, with a big driveway, Dad offered us his sukkah. He was turning 76, healthy enough, but no longer able to put on such a show. I went out to the garage behind my parent’s house to contemplate the thing. I told Dad that we couldn’t take it because we had nowhere to store it; the Victorian lacks a garage. The truth is, I was just intimidated. Twenty-four guests? Two soups? Night after night after night?

My father is selling his sukkah. It’s the only piece of real estate he and my mother own, a temporary hut without even a real roof. It’s priceless, of course, but he is asking $4,900. He set that number after consulting with a friend who sells real estate. Dad put the word out on the shul listserv last summer, and again this past July. No takers.

“The sukkah is free now,” Dad told me recently. “If somebody wants it, they can take it. I don’t want to give it up for scrap lumber.”

Jodi Rudoren, former Jerusalem bureau chief of  The New York Times, is now editorial director of NYT Global.

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