Every autumn, I say to my husband Anthony, “Please can we build a succah this year?” What I actually mean is: “Please can you build a succah this year?”
I am so lacking in practical and spatial skills that I can’t even work out how to put my garlic-press back together after it comes out of the dishwasher.
And every time I ask, Anthony replies: “No! You don’t want a succah!”
I then insist that I definitely do want one, and act all huffy when he continues to refuse, and I point out what a lovely experience it would be for the children in the hope of guilt-tripping him into agreeing. All to no avail.
If I’m being strictly honest, however, I have to admit that Anthony is right — I don’t want a succah. I like eating at my kitchen table, in a centrally heated home. According to the Mishnah, rain must be able to penetrate the schach — the roof covering of your succah. Personally, I prefer the concept of a structure built to keep the rain out. The idea of complaining to the person who built your succah, because you sat in it while it was raining and you stayed completely dry, seems a bit perverse.
“Why are we supposed to take things so literally at Succot anyway,” says Anthony. “At Pesach, when we’re told to consider it as if we ourselves were delivered from Egypt, it doesn’t mean we have to actually cross the Red Sea pursued by folk in chariots. So why do we have to build booths in the garden at Succot? Why can’t we just imagine them?”
I’m not sure why the word succah is generally translated as “booth”. It seems an odd word to use when talking about an outdoor shelter. Whenever anyone mentions the word “booth” I immediately think of the seating arrangements you get in chain restaurants where the chair backs form partitions. There are also phone booths and ticket booths… but none of these really conjures up the image of a temporary dwelling in the desert.
As for calling Succot the “Feast of Tabernacles” — it must be the least useful translation of any festival name. I’m confident that I’ve never heard a single person actually call it that.
“New Year”, “Passover”, “Day of Atonement” — these are all helpfully descriptive. “Feast of Tabernacles” not so much — given that the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, has nothing to do with Succot.
I do truly love the idea of having a succah, though. Most of our friends have one and, like anything done by one’s peer group, it therefore feels like the natural and normal thing to do (though from the outside it must look like one of the more arcane and bizarre Jewish customs).
The children would get a huge kick out of building it. And as for the decorations… they would be making fruit and vegetables out of Hama Beads for days in advance, and drawing pictures, and deciding which bits of the garden to hack off to make the schach. As the years went by, we would build up a succah minhag, with certain decorations that had to appear each time, like on a Christmas tree. It would all be so wholesome, so educational, so creative.
And I love the broader symbolism of the succah, too: the concept of impermanence — of feeling gratitude for our solid homes. And the idea of thinking about the temporary, ephemeral nature of all aspects of life. And the importance of hospitality — the notion of welcoming guests to your home to sit with you and share your food.
When it comes down to it, however, I don’t want to spend a week of October eating my meals in a hut in the garden. I just don’t. This unquestionably makes me both a terrible mother and a terrible Jew, but I don’t feel particularly guilty about either.
One possible compromise would be to cut out a lot of the initial effort by buying one of the pre-fab, tent-like versions. Our local succah store offers everything from the economy “Safari Succah” to the impressive “Royal Succah”, to the positively hedonistic “Super Succah —the wide-arched entrance is so inviting, you will never want to leave!”
It feels like cheating, though. Getting your husband to build one properly out of wood is the only authentic approach, I feel. It’s so upsetting that Anthony doesn’t agree.
I’m taking a risk in writing this piece, in that any succah-owning friends who read it may decide not to invite us over during the festival. That would be a shame, but will serve me right. Maybe if we are sent to Succot Coventry, Anthony will finally be persuaded that we should build a succah in our own garden next year.
I will so much enjoy looking at it from the kitchen.