Sukkahs can help us find new meaning in old structures

Ten years ago, if you had told me there would be a sukkah in my backyard, I would have scoffed.

Those strange little huts? The ones you see every fall in synagogue courtyards and outside Orthodox homes? For a holiday I don't understand and rarely remember? Me? Naah.

But 10 years later there it is, sitting on the patio, a weathered and well-used masterpiece of lumberyard lattice, cinder blocks and bungee cords, which as we all know was the connective material of choice for our ancient Hebrew ancestors.

Decorated with cornstalks and Indian corn (I live in New England) and all the Jewish New Year cards we received over the past few weeks, it isn't exactly traditional. In fact, I'm told it isn't even "kosher." (The walls would need to be opaque for that, and ours are not.) Nonetheless, I think that putting up a sukkah every year is one of the more "traditional" things my family does.

My husband, Jim, designed it. The first year, he made it tall enough for Michael Jordan to enter without ducking his head. We cut it down to size the following year, but it's still a monument to real life in late 20th century Jewish America. Bungee cords, cinder blocks and all.

Sukkahs are springing up all over the place, aided and abetted by a market economy that leaps in wherever there is money to be made. There are several sukkah stores in metropolitan New York, some of which ship kits (your choice of fiberglass, vinyl or canvas) all over the country. As the New York Times reported a few years back, Rabbi Yossi Biston, who owns the Sukkah Center in Brooklyn, realized "his business had extended well beyond the fervently religious when he got a call…from a customer on Long Island who said, `You know, it doesn't fit comfortably in the living room.'"

Sukkahs are no longer institutional vestiges or Orthodox holdouts. They've moved into the mainstream of the Jewish community to the point that the local lumber yard advertises sukkah kits in the Newton Tab, a weekly community newspaper.

To me, the sukkah-building boom proves the vitality of the American Jewish scene in its ability to connect with the past and to create new meaning within old structures. Rabbis and educators sell the idea of the sukkah to parents of young kids as the great alternative to the Christmas tree. You can string up twinkling lights, if you want. A sukkah is bigger than any evergreen. Much bigger. And not only can you make your own decorations, you can even sleep in it!

And grown ups have taken to the notion of progressive sukkah dinner parties — hors d'oeuvres at the Coen-Rileys, casseroles at the Millers' and dessert at the Myers'. Of course, the reality of the sukkah doesn't always live up to the idealization of it. Living in the Boston area, there have been years when my sukkah sat forlorn in the yard, battered by chilly winds and rains, the greeting cards ruined, the corn stalks rotted. Bundled up in sweaters and gloves, we sometimes managed only one hurried meal within its flimsy walls, feeling foolish and catching cold.

But other years, Indian summer turns our sukkah into an enchanted bower. Late-blooming flowers decorate the table, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are consumed in unaccustomed leisure. We bring the oil lantern outside and laughter rises up to the stars that peek through the leaves.

We have some wonderful photographs taken in our sukkah. The table is loaded with a potluck seasonal feast — apple pies, tomatoes in profusion, bottles of wine. Friends crowd together, with the kids mugging for the camera. Looking at those pictures, I can almost smell the tang of autumn.

Regardless of the weather, Sukkot is the only harvest celebration that really connects me — an urban Jew for generations — to the rhythms of planting and reaping. By Thanksgiving, it's far too cold to even think of eating outdoors, and we're chewing on food that was collected weeks and even months ago.

So I sit in my flimsy booth with a glass of wine, my family and friends, and try not to think about the five months of winter looming ahead, and wonder what I'll be doing 10 years down the road that seems unthinkable to me today.