It must seem a curious sight to a non-Jewish neighbour. You look out of your bedroom window and suddenly canvas and wooden shacks are sprouting in Jewish gardens as though the houses had given birth to strange little offspring.
These days it is easy to have a succah when you can buy them ready-made in self-assembly kits. There is even one that pops up out of a case as if from a magician's hat. But for all the tabernacles on the market, it is still rewarding to build your own. As someone whose DIY skills stretched no further than Ikea furniture, I had always baulked at the prospect - until I followed a model designed by my neighbour, Edgar Samuel, the former director of the Jewish Museum.
His structure consists of bamboo poles lashed together or bound with cable ties, with a hessian wrap, and not a hammer or screwdriver involved. The end product is a charming, rustic-style tent far more evocative of our ancestral past than many prefabricated succot, and cheap and relatively simple to put up.
There are variations on the design, but here is one version, courtesy of Edgar's son, Jonathan. You will need a minimum of 31 bamboo poles, each 8ft; one 2ft stick; a packet of cable ties; some nylon string; a folding trellis that extends up to 8ft square; and a piece of lightweight hessian 6ft by 32ft.
To start, take eight poles, lay them in pairs side by side and then form them into a square. Bind them at each corner with two cable ties, so the ties criss-cross each other, ensuring that the ties are tight so that the poles do not slip. (The original design uses lashings, which requires a knowledge of knots, but cable ties are easier.) Then take four other poles and attach them as shown in Figure 1 above. You now have a roof: you can then tie on the trellis, using the string.
To form the walls, take two pairs of poles and bind them into a V-shape, criss-crossing a few inches from the bottom. Make four Vs and then attach one V to each of the sides of the roof as shown in Figure 2, so that each side forms a triangle. Although you can use cable ties, if you want to take extra precautions to stop the poles slipping down, it is better to use lashings here, tying them to the roof with a timber-hitch knot: you can learn how to tie the knot via the web.
The next stage may require help: lifting the structure in place. The succah should rest on its four sets of legs, with a level roof, each of its corners roughly the same height from the ground. It may take some adjusting before you set it right (see Figure 3).
You will now have eight triangular sides, consisting of four upward-pointing and four downward Vs. Take the remaining three 8ft poles and fasten one each across three of the upward V-sides, close to the bottom: these will help stablise the walls. Then fasten the 2ft stick close to the top of the fourth upward V to act as a lintel over the entrance. The details can be varied. For sturdier walls, for example, you can use bundles of three bamboos rather than two, so that each wall would require six, not four, diagonal poles (an extra eight bamboos in all).
For the trellis-supporting poles across the roof, instead of the pattern shown in Figure 1, there is an alternative method. You will need four 10ft bamboos; pair them and then tie them together in an X-shape which you can fasten across the roof.
Additionally, you may want to avoid a trellis because there is an halachic query over the tiny nails it contains (consult your rabbi). In which case, you can buy additional bamboos and attach them at narrow intervals to the roof on which to lay the leaves.
The next stage is to wrap the walls. You could use various coverings including sheets, but hessian is good because you can fasten it to the roof by threading string through the sacking and simply tying it on. There is one potential problem: the actual structure will stand at a height of a few inches over 6ft. Hessian is generally sold at 6ft widths, which means there will be a gap of a few inches in the wall, either from the roof or the floor. But halachically, it is permissible to have a gap in the wall if it is no more than four tefachim (just over a foot). You could choose to buy extra hessian to cover the gap, although sewing hessian together is difficult.
Voilà, your succah. You must now tether each corner to a solid object such as an earthenware pot, as a precaution against the wind. Finally, all you need now is the s'chach, the covering. Some greengrocers will stock greenery, but advance orders are advisable:or you can buy ready-made, bamboo-cane s'chach.
After Succot, you can simply cut the cable ties and disassemble: but make sure the hessian is dry before storing it away for another year.