The Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or as The Daily Show host John Stewart calls it, “The Hebrew word meaning how many holidays can the Jews fit into one month?” follows so quickly on the heels of the 10 Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur that it seldom gets the love it deserves. This is truly a shande, for as I discovered last year when my friend and I built a sukkah in my backyard, Sukkot is hands down the most family-friendly week in the Jewish holiday oeuvre. Think about it from a kid’s perspective. You basically get to build a giant fort in the backyard that you get to live in for a whole week! What could be better?
My family had helped to build the sukkah at Congregation Beth Israel with the CBI Brotherhood in years past, but this was our family’s first backyard sukkah. Our kids were so enthralled with the whole concept of the sukkah that rain or shine they insisted on eating every single meal, drink and afterschool snack under its leafy canopy. They even did their homework in the sukkah! We only managed to sleep one night in our cozy little booth under the stars, but huddled together against the night chill in our sleeping bags, we shared a peace and serenity that is a rare gift indeed in a family with three very energetic young children.
Building the sukkah itself was surprisingly easy. I found a simple and inexpensive design on the website neohasid.org. The lumber cost only about $30. With a little help from our kids, we were able to assemble our booth in one day. I used tarps tied to the frame with ropes for the requisite three walls. The s’khakh (roof covering) was easy enough to find. Our neighbor was having some trees removed from his lawn and was only too happy to let us take some of the branches off his hands.
Then came the fun part … decorating it! After schlepping an outdoor table and some chairs into our booth, we hung construction paper loops the kids had made in religious school and strung up some gourds. The kids strategically placed pumpkins in each corner of the sukkah. Then we let them go crazy with the paper, markers, glitter and glue. By the time we were finished, we had an impressive little structure, resplendent with kid-produced art adorning the walls. My son Leo even made a paper-and-stick Torah decorated with adhesive-backed Hebrew letters.
You can ask your synagogue or Portland’s Everything Jewish for the four species necessary for Sukkot observance: the etrog and lulav, along with the myrtle and willow branches. Our kids really enjoyed the ritual aspects of Sukkot. Each had the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of waving the four species. Explain to your children that we build the sukkah to remember the fragile dwellings our ancestors slept in for 40 years as they wandered the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
Sukkot is the perfect time to teach kids about the night sky. Because Sukkot is so early this year (Sept. 18-25), many of the summer constellations are still visible. In September the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen reigns over the northeast horizon. Shaped like a W, she is easy to spot. High overhead in the Milky Way looms the Summer Triangle, an asterism (pattern of stars) comprising prominent stars from three constellations: Deneb from Cygnus the swan, Vega in Lyre the harp and Altair in Aquilla the Eagle. Jupiter rises in the eastern sky shortly after sunset. Even low-powered binoculars will reveal Jupiter’s four Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. Saturn hangs low in the west-southwest. You will need a telescope to view the planet’s rings. The crisp, cool nights of fall typically make for excellent “seeing” conditions. You can find basic star charts at your local bookstore, the OMSI Science store or online at telescope.com. As your children gaze at the stars through the gaps in the sukkah’s roof, they may share the same sense of wonder ancient Israelites no doubt felt as they looked up at the desert sky all those years ago.
Be sure to invite your friends over for dinner or Shabbat in the sukkah, especially your children’s friends. My kids were very excited to share the sukkah with their friends. Don’t forget to fire up the grill. There’s no doubt that barbecue just tastes better in the sukkah. Sukkot is a harvest holiday too, and a great time to enjoy the bounty of the Pacific Northwest’s delicious seasonal foods. Put out apples and pears from the Columbia River Gorge. Wash it down with an ice-cold glass of Ryan’s organic and certified kosher apple cider direct from Hood River.
Shabbat is particularly fun in the sukkah. You’ll definitely need some Neronim candles to compensate for the wind. Last year after blessings and dinner, we busted out the djembes, our kid’s bucket of instruments (mostly percussion) and a shofar and proceeded to rock the night away!
You can hit up your local library or independent bookstore for some Sukkot-themed books to read by flashlight at bedtime in your sukkah. One of our kid’s favorite Sukkot books is Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast by Jamie S. Korngold. It is the sweetest Sukkot story about a brother and sister who fill their sukkah with stuffed animals and make breakfast for them. Another fun read is Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot by Sylvia A. Rouss.
If you live in an apartment and cannot build an outdoor structure, you can always build a tabletop sukkah. You can make one out of construction paper and Popsicle sticks. Throw in some dollhouse furniture and twigs, leaves and fruit for s’khakh. Kveller.com has a kid-friendly craft project featuring an edible graham cracker sukkah! Just take three graham crack- ers for the walls and use peanut butter or marshmallow fluff as mortar. Throw some pretzel or carrot sticks on top for your s’khakh and bam – you’ve got yourself one delicious sukkah!
However you choose to celebrate Sukkot, be sure to take the time to appreciate the natural beauty that is all around us and try to imagine what it must have been like for our wandering forebears, who did not have warm, dry homes to sleep in, as they slowly but inexorably made their way home to the promsed land.
Portland freelance writer rich geller enjoys sharing the richness of Jewish traditions with his three children.