Halachically challenged grower of etrogs shares sukkah stories

As I was growing up, a sukkah was just a sukkah. Someone put it up, strung fruit and hung it, covered it with schach (greenery and natural materials) for the weeklong holiday. Then we took it down and put it away for the next year.

Little did I know that a sukkah could become an emotional as well as religious experience for my family and me over the years.

This year, my Sukkot woes began in July. Finally, after years of trying, the etrog (aromatic citron) I'd been attempting to grow — remember last year's story in the Bulletin about the decimated crop? — went to the big Sukkah in the sky.

I got another one, planted it in a sunnier, hotter place outside my house. Maybe the spot in our entryway courtyard duplicated the climate of the Holy Land because – voila — success this year. A continuum of fragrant flowers, lots of tiny little fruits, lots of hope for this amateur suburban horticulturist.

The tiny tree's tag said this was an "etrog citron" ("Lemon-like fruit. Peel thick and fragrant. Used in Jewish rituals") and had a lovely picture of a bright yellow fruit. But reality was something else. These were not the lovely elongated, rounded and fragrant fruits depicted on the tree's hangtag. My etrogim had long, creepy tentacles at one end, making them look like yellow alien creatures.

Yes, they smelled wonderful and yes the tree was redolent of bowers of aromatic flowers. However, this tree, it turns out, is a "Buddha's hand citron," an unusual species of etrog that could be kosher for Sukkot under certain circumstances. But mine wasn't.

I discovered this news after I e-mailed my problem to Aish Ha'Torah, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva that gave me the disappointing news.

Firstly, the kind rabbi wrote, the Buddha's hand citron is an extremely unusual variety, but if my whole community used this species for Sukkot, the etrogim would be kosher. However, he added, because the etrog tree had been grafted onto rootstock, it was totally ineligible for festival use; the etrog and tree must be "completely pure."

So much for my foray into the world of biblical plants. I'm a successful, but halachically unsuccessful, etrog grower.

The story of our family's sukkah goes back to my 8-year-old daughter's infancy. It was then that my husband devised a Home Depot special sukkah for about $50. We had inquired about advertised "kits" that we discovered sold for $300 and more. But Sam, clever one that he is, drew his idea on the back of an envelope (we copied a design from an advertisement for a kit), took it to his favorite store and asked for help.

Sam bought plastic conduit pipe for the frame, 2-by-4 wooden slates for the roof and PVC plumbing elbows with electrical braces to hold the pipe together. He bought painting drop cloths that I sewed pockets into to use as the walls. Voila! An instant do-it-yourself sukkah.

Schach has been delivered to our house every year by our rabbi, except for the year we cut fronds from a Mexican fan palm in our yard. The fronds kept slipping through the wooden slates that formed the base of the roof.

Nothing like having a palm frond in your special Sukkot casserole.

So in that first annual harvest hut came the question of fruit. Over the years I'd heard horror stories about fresh fruit that rotted and attracted all manner of urban animals. I would use vegetables I knew wouldn't spoil and wouldn't attract small wildlife. I ran to the grocery store, bought about three dozen gourds, at least a dozen ears of colorful dried Indian corn, and many small orange and white pumpkins.

Stringing the corn was easy. Stringing the gourds and pumpkins wasn't. But seeing the hammer sitting right there, I came upon an idea: I'd nail a nail into each gourd and pumpkin, then tie twine around each nail, then hang it from the beams.

A good idea, but my table became a mess of smashed gourds and shattered pumpkins until I figured out a way to gently tap the nail into the fall vegetation. And the first year I also learned that the weight of dozens of ears of corn, gourds and pumpkins can make roof boards sag.

Needless to say, each successive year fewer and fewer of these items were hung in the sukkah, just enough to contribute to its festive nature. This annual trek to the store has gotten less costly every year, though sometimes Sukkot comes so early I have to pay a premium for these articles at trendy markets in my area.

We also string up our New Year's cards, but thankfully, these don't make the boards sag. Nor do the chains of paper rings, sometimes made by our three children's religious school classmates and their parents, who make an annual pilgrimage to our house to help erect the sukkah.

Every year we have added more and different Christmas tree lights, something we learned from our friend Rabbi Yitzchak Nadler, our former rabbi in San Francisco whom we now visit at his congregation in North Lake Tahoe. He suggested that since it's usually foggy in San Francisco around this time of year, the sukkah builder might want to be the provider of the celestial lights of the sukkah. That fulfills the holiday commandment of being able to see the stars through the rooftop vegetation.

Our lights, which do twinkle like stars, feature chili peppers in three colors, tropical fruits, logos of U.C. Berkeley and cactuses. A special red-tipped light included with each strand makes them twinkle. Our repeat visitors come in anticipation every year to see what manner of lights we've added and how many more "stars" line the sukkah.

And what sukkah story would be complete without tales of toppling 2-by-4s, plastic pipe and plumbing corners? I know that to be truly kosher, a sukkah must fall down, attesting to its temporary nature. I can confirm that not only has our sukkah fallen more than once, I've been in it while it fell — schach, fruit and all down to the deck it stands on.

It's fallen apart while I've tried in vain to shove piping back into corner elbows while I'm standing on a ladder, never my favorite place to be. I've watched the sukkah swaying in the wind despite the myriad bungee cords holding it down. I've heard it creak in the ever-present wind of Foster City. I've seen the stringed corn with squirrels attached as if the vegetation were a trapeze. I've listened to the thud of gourds and pumpkins hitting the table and the ground.

We've even felt raindrops through the palm leaves and man-made twinkling stars. We've made modifications to the sukkah nearly every year, such as using fewer 2-by-4s and metal electrical corners instead of the original plastic plumbing elbows with metal electrical braces.

By the end of the weeklong festival, the gourds and pumpkins look a little tired, the corn is half-eaten by squirrels and there's a slight chill in the air. We share our sukkah with friends and neighbors, Jewish and non-Jewish. There's a gathering in our sukkah almost daily. We take our meals in it. We relish all this, and remember and laugh about our sukkah during the year.