Fond memories of sights, tastes, smells of sukkahs past

NEW YORK — I can still picture the loosely constructed hut built behind my synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y., every Sukkot. During my childhood, I'd reach for eggplants, red peppers and apples pinned to interior walls and hanging from branches entwined in its roof. I inhaled the scent of autumn air and fresh produce.

With frost on the pumpkins, the scene signified the harvest in a way that Thanksgiving never could, because this flimsy hut with its dangling fruit enveloped me in nature.

Each year, women from the temple sisterhood swarmed around a buffet on picnic tables, fretting as steam rose off casseroles fresh from the oven.

"Eat quickly, eat quickly," they'd say, hoping that everyone would get a hot meal. But their efforts were useless on those chilly nights.

Yet I loved sharing tepid food within those produce-covered walls, which combined an atmosphere of hospitality and camping out. In contrast to formal dinners during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot was joyful and user-friendly.

As a child in the 1950s, I was confused between the words Sukkot, the holiday, and sukkah, or hut, which is covered by weaving cuttings of evergreens and leafy shoots through a lattice. The rabbi once explained that these branches should be thick enough to afford shade, but sparse enough for stars to shine through at night. Back then, I always checked to make sure they did.

Now confronting a new millennium, Sukkot steadfastly cleaves to its agrarian roots. When the ancient Israelites lived in Canaan, Sukkot was a gathering festival. At the time, the Israelites flocked to Jerusalem, offering grains, fruit, olive oil, wine, and animals to the Temple. During the festival, they dwelled in hastily assembled huts, the precursor of the modern sukkah.

Today, few of us gather crops, but many people build huts in their backyards. In New York City, where vertical living prevails, enterprising Jews sometimes erect a sukkah on apartment terraces or building rooftops. "The elevation brings us closer to the stars," says a Brooklyn mother of two about her roof-garden sukkah.

Apartment dwellers in Los Angeles are known to place huts on fire escapes, even though they are violating fire codes. Aware of this practice — and the holiday — the police department issues these people a summons, requesting that the hut be removed in eight days.

Wherever the sukkah is located, the point is to invite family and friends to partake in as many outdoor meals as possible during the weeklong holiday.

People lacking lawns or construction skills can participate in festivities at many synagogues, where volunteers frame and decorate a sukkah. On the holiday's first night, congregations often hold potluck dinners for their membership. Yet concern over keeping food hot outdoors still prevails.

To avoid transporting bubbling casseroles or competing for limited space in synagogue ovens, it is wise to simplify at Sukkot.

Think of the holiday as a large-scale picnic. Because carrying food outdoors takes effort, the menu should be selected with care. Piping hot food cools quickly on October nights. Therefore, the most practical dishes for Sukkot are prepared in advance, easily assembled and served at room temperature.

Paper plates and plastic silverware are acceptable at large gatherings. Roll napkins around silverware, tying them with vines of English ivy. To underscore the holiday's informality, cover the buffet surface with a patchwork of contrasting tablecloths.

Create seasonal centerpieces by filling wicker baskets with plums, apples, pears, and autumn leaves, sprinkling dates and shelled walnuts on top. Wrap colorful ribbons around basket handles, letting ends flutter on tables.

With its harvest theme, this holiday symbolizes a horn of plenty. Because it revolves around an autumn buffet al fresco, save gourmet dishes for the dining room. At the Sukkot table, let warm feelings flow — but hold the hot food.

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