Photo Essay: Pergola to Sukkah

The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.
The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.

One of the things I very much wanted for my home was a structure that could give me a “head start” on a sukkah each year. Ingrid Martin of Earthly Sites made a garden design for me that included a pergola. Here’s the pergola, after one growing season. There are grape vines at each of the four corners, and they are so far doing nicely, especially the ones in the “back.”

Two problems: one, it’s very windy here. Windy enough that plants have to be chosen carefully (a couple of big sunflowers were blown to bits over the summer.) Sukkah walls were a real issue, because if they too wind resistant they could become unholy missiles that might hurt people. So I made a radical decision: my sukkah “walls” were going to be made of fish net. I purchased 30′ of 7′ wide fishnet, and today we’re going to “hang” the walls with plastic zip ties.

This will also allow those in the sukkah to enjoy the view, which is pretty spectacular. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m still trying to figure out the shkhakh issue. Shkakh is the roof of the sukkah. It’s critical that it offer more shade than sun, but allow one to see the stars. Also, it must be made of something that used to grow out of the ground. Many people use palm fronds or bamboo mats – again, with the winds up here, I am worried about trying to tie anything to the roof, lest it go flying away into the neighbors’ yards.  It may not be a completely kosher sukkah this year, by next year the problem will be solved. At their current rate of growth, the grape vines will provide all the cover we need, maybe a little too much.

At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.
At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.

I figure that part of the point of the holiday is to get us out in nature, playing with greenery, figuring things out, anyway. Some may say, “But it isn’t kosher!” and all I can say to that is that this sukkah, like its owner, is a work in progress.

OK, so we got the fishnet out, and after drinking a lot of ice tea and talking about options, we decided to start in the middle of the back. I had no idea that you could double zip ties – cool. Thank goodness my friend and student Jake is helping me.

Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.
Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.

We got the walls up, and they need to “relax” a bit. One tricky item is trying not to hurt the grape vines that are creeping up the pergola supports – I can tell that when it’s time to take the net down, we’ll have to be even more careful. Now the walls are hung and the rug is in, and as you can see the sun is getting lower:

The rug is in, and the walls are "relaxing" a bit before we tie them down.
The rug is in, and the walls are “relaxing” a bit before we tie them down.

Time for some furniture, right? Since I’ll be making kiddush in there in a few hours?

Sukkah at dusk, ready for food and guests. Just in time!

I wish all my readers a joyous Sukkot!

What’s a Sukkah?

A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom
A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A sukkah (soo-KAH or SUK-kah)  is a small temporary structure Jews build to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It is often translated “booth” but might better be translated as “shelter.” In the ancient Near East (and in some places, even today) farmworkers built these little shelters for the hurried end of the harvest, when it would take too much valuable daylight to travel home from the field every day. For Jews, the sukkah also is a reminder of the time when we were wanderers on the road from Egypt to Israel.

A proper sukkah is a temporary structure. Its roof is partially covered with greenery (ideally tree branches) but open enough that one can still see the stars on a clear night. The sukkah should be large enough for at least one person to sit in it at a table, and it may not be more than 10m tall. The walls should be constructed in such a way that they will not blow over in a wind.  It is important that you acquire all the materials in a legal manner: “borrowing” greenery from a neighbor without asking (aka stealing) invalidates the mitzvah.

A sukkah can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you wish. The sukkah pictured above was built by a man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that it was built mostly of found materials; the bill came to $5. You can also purchase sukkah “kits” on the internet, which is one way to get a proper sukkah without too much worry. If you are skilled with tools, then you’ve got a head start!

Many people decorate their sukkah with carpets and wall hangings, and furnish it with a table, chairs, and even a bed! Since the mitzvah (commandment) is to “dwell” in the sukkah, it is good to eat meals and even sleep in the sukkah, weather permitting. It is especially nice to practice the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim [hospitality] by inviting others to eat in your sukkah.

What if you don’t have a yard in which to put a sukkah? In cities, people sometimes build them on balconies,  fire escapes or rooftops. (Be careful not to run afoul of local ordinances, however!) Synagogues and Jewish organizations often have a sukkah. If you sit in the sukkah of a friend or neighbor often, it is nice to offer to help them take it down at the end of the holiday; this is usually not a small job.

Sukkot is an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy nature while we share meals and conversation with family and friends. Whatever is available to you this Sukkot, be sure to get outside and enjoy the season!

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.
In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.

Sukkot’s Coming: Go Out and Play!

Decorating the Sukkah
Decorating the Sukkah

Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.” – @travelincatdoc

Sukkot was known in ancient times as THE Holiday, HeHahg. It was the biggest event of the Jewish year. That fact usually surprises American Jews, for whom the High Holidays and Passover are THE Holidays.

But in ancient times, all the observance we have just been through, the purification of body and soul, was just a warmup to the biggest holiday of all, a holiday when the Temple hosted special sacrifices and the Water Pouring Festival. During Sukkot, it was the custom to pour water over the altar in the Temple every day, and every night, the water was brought in a golden flask from the Pool of Siloah. It became a huge festival of light, too, with torches and jugglers and a joyful craziness. There is a record of a great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, who juggled eight flaming torches as part of the celebration.

What happened, then? It all changed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Without the Temple, we couldn’t do sacrifices, and the Water Pouring didn’t really make sense. We didn’t have access to the Pool of Siloah.

So all that remained of Sukkot was the ancient sukkahs, which we still build. Today Sukkot is still joyous (especially in Israel) but it has become a holiday of hospitality and a quieter kind of joy.

Our modern Sukkot may not have fire-juggling rabbis (!) but it has a wonderful sweetness. Start looking around for a sukkah: it might be at your congregation, or in the yard of a friend. Or maybe you’ll have one in your yard this year. This is our reward for the hard work of the last six weeks, our time of rejoicing.

Sukkot begins this year (2014 or 5775) on Wednesday, Oct 8, at sundown.

A Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

Shana Tova
Shana Tova, by Jen T.

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!

Weather and the Jewish Year


A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.
A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.

What is Yizkor?

If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

What is Chol HaMoed?

Matzah brei serving
Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.