Making the sukkah beautiful


I built my first sukkah three years ago. It was your typical sukkah in a kit — a metal pole and tarp structure, stark white and generic. As I decorated it, I realized that no matter how many plastic fruits and vegetables I hung from the sides and ceiling, they seemed to get lost in the space. The big white tarps were just too visually dominant. 

This year, I was honored to decorate a sukkah in an outside plaza adjacent to the new home of the Jewish Journal, as well as the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services. All three organizations will share the sukkah throughout the week of Sukkot. Based on my earlier experience, I approached this sukkah with a strategy: to create dramatic, simple and inexpensive decorative elements that would break up all that whiteness. After all, no one has ever sung, “I’m Dreaming of a White Sukkot.”

Even if you don’t incorporate these specific projects in your own sukkah, I hope that the ideas inspire you to get creative. Let’s think outside the big white box.

(For more on the value of beauty in Judaism and on Sukkot, read David Suissa’s column here)

PINGPONG BALL GRAPES 

I started by covering much of the white tarp with curtain panels from IKEA. At $9.99 for two panels, they were a low-cost decorating solution, so I bought seven pairs. For curtain tiebacks, I decided to make my own grapes out of pingpong balls, which are available at the 99 Cents Only store.

Using a hot-glue gun, attach pingpong balls to one another, one at a time. Cluster them into a V shape so they look like a bunch of grapes rather than a science project. I used about 15 pingpong balls per bunch.

After spray painting the grape bunches a burgundy red color, hot-glue a twig to the top of each bunch. The twig actually adds a lot of realism to the grapes, so warn the kids — and spouse – not to eat them.

Tie one or two bunches of the pingpong grapes to each curtain panel with some fishing line or string. Then frame the grapes in some burlap ribbon and silk autumn leaves.

BRANCHES WITH DICTIONARY PAGE ROSES

I love hanging branches over the dining table. They add such drama while staying within the harvest theme. Before hanging the branches from the ceiling, I attached paper roses made from dictionary pages.

Fold two dictionary pages (or any two sheets of paper) lengthwise, so you now have four skinny pages held together by the bottom fold. Then tear each page at 1- to 2-inch intervals, being careful not to tear the page all the way to the fold.

Place a strip of double-stick tape across the bottom at the fold.

Roll the pages loosely while pinching the bottom where the tape is. The double-stick tape will keep the rose together.

Unfurl the petals, which you created when you tore the paper.

Hot-glue several flowers to a tree branch.

Tie some fishing line around the branch, and tie the other end of the fishing line to the bamboo in the ceiling. Secure two ends of the branch for balance and security.

FALLING LEAVES

 

Paper leaves strung together and suspended from the ceiling create a magical effect, and they complement the hanging branches so well. I’ve also used this technique with silk rose petals at various events.

Cut leaves out of paper. You can do this by hand, making simple oval leaf shapes. I actually used a die-cutting machine, so the leaves were more intricate. I then sprayed the leaves with some glimmer mist, which I bought at the crafts store, to give them some color.

Using a needle and thread, create strands of three to five leaves spaced a few inches apart. The more strands you make, the more it will look like leaves are falling from the heavens.

Where the thread meets each leaf, apply a dab of craft glue so that the leaf stays in place. Tie one end of each strand to the bamboo at the top of the ceiling. If the leaves tangle, don’t worry. From a distance, it still looks like the leaves are falling.

LOOP GARLANDS 

To decorate the sukkah, kids often make garlands out of construction paper loops. Here is an idea that takes that simple technique and turbo charges it. These aren’t just garlands — they’re modern art pieces.

Cut poster or construction paper into long strips that are about 2 inches wide.

Create loops with the strips, and hold them together with paper clips. Also, cut other strips to make smaller loops, and attach them to the larger loops with the paper clips. Connect several loops together to form a long garland. By using paper clips, you can keep changing your pattern before committing to the final design.

When you’re happy with how the garland looks, permanently attach loops to each other with a stapler, and remove the paper clips. Hang the garlands on the sukkah wall with some fishing line.

PALM LEAF STARBURSTS 

I found bunches of long palm leaves at IKEA and thought they would make stylish starbursts to accentuate the sukkah entrance. They also would make beautiful room decorations when Sukkot is over. 

Form a starburst pattern with the palm leaves, securing them in the middle with a hot-glue gun.

Tie some string around the spokes of the starburst to make sure the leaves don’t come apart. The string will also be useful later for hanging.

Cover the string with a paper rose like the ones made for the hanging branches. Tie some fishing line to the string to hang it from the metal poles.

Decorating and crafts expert Jonathan Fong hosts the Web series “Style With a Smile” and DisneyFamily.com’s “He Made, She Made.” He also recently designed the new offices of the Jewish Journal. You can find more of his inspirational ideas at jonathanfongstyle.com.

The Building Blocks of a Great Sukkah


Every year, Scott Rekant of Monmouth Junction, N.J., hauls a tidy pile of 21 2-by-4s from his garage and puts together a sturdy sukkah that stands on his back porch.

“It takes me about an hour to assemble it with a bit of adult help. Two hours with my kids,” he said.

He’s been building a sukkah, which he designed himself, every year for the last 12 years or so and always invites a large number of friends to enjoy dessert.

“I wanted to leave the sides open so we could see the backyard and the woods bordering our property,” he said. “I also wanted something I could easily store and then reassemble each year.”

Building a sukkah doesn’t need to be something only the few can do. If you have a place to put a sukkah, there is a design or kit to fit your level of handiness, time commitment and budget. Besides being an integral part of the holiday of Sukkot, building a sukkah is a great way to create shared family memories and to start a family tradition. Decorating a sukkah can also take in the whole family — the completed “masterpiece” creates an opportunity to share the holiday.

In the Torah, Sukkot is referred to as Hag ha-Asif — the Holiday of the In-Gathering. This is the time of the final harvest in Israel, as well as in many other parts of the world. This is therefore the time that we thank God for what we have received.

The sukkah has two symbolic meanings. First, it represents the dwellings of our ancestors as they lived in the wilderness during their journey to the Promised Land. Secondly, it reminds us of the huts our forefathers would erect in the fields during the harvest so they could watch over their produce.

The Bible commands us to live in our sukkah just as our ancestors did. Ideally this means eating, drinking, sleeping and spending leisure time in the sukkah. At the very least, traditional Jews try to have their meals in the sukkah. Dispensations regarding these mitzvot are allowed in cases of rain, illness or severe discomfort, such as very cold weather.

A sukkah basically consists of two parts — the walls and the skakh, or roof covering.

The Basics: The Walls and the Roof

All material is appropriate for the walls of a sukkah as long as it can stand up to the weather. The sukkah must have at least three walls. When the sukkah is built adjacent to a permanent structure, one or more of the walls of that structure may be used as part of the sukkah. By the way, the sukkah itself is a temporary structure. Therefore, you cannot take a permanent structure, an arbor for example, and turn it into a sukkah.

The roof covering should be placed after the walls are finished. It should be made of vegetable matter that was not previously used for anything else. It cannot be rooted in the soil, such as the canopy of a tree. Severed tree branches, strips of wood, straw, bamboo and the like are all suitable. Things that are edible cannot be used as skakh. It must provide more shade than sunlight, yet the roof materials must not be so thick that they do not let in rain. It must be open enough for stars to be seen, but no opening can be more than 11 inches in width or length.

The Design

The beauty of a sukkah is that you are free to create your own design within the limits of the aforementioned guidelines. I use two rectangular sides that remain assembled throughout the year (stored outside by my shed) and then I add three 1-by-2-by-12-inch pieces of wood to attach them and the same for the structure of the roof. For those who want to create their own design, there are numerous plans on the Internet. And for those who don’t want to bother with all this, there are a number of companies that sell ready-to-assemble kits.

The Decorating

How you decorate your sukkah will depend to some extent on where you live. In Israel, and other areas with warm climates, palm fronds are a favorite material. For those living in more temperate climates, corn stalks and pine boughs are more common. Since Sukkot is a harvest holiday, it is nice to have some symbolism representing the harvest. If you have a garden, all the better — then you can use things from your own harvest. Display or string some of the vegetables for decoration. Put some flowers in a vase.

If you don’t have your own garden, you can always get vegetables from the supermarket, such as string beans, cranberries, peppers or whatever, to string together and hang from the walls or roof. Small gourds are also usually available during the time of sukkot and even large gourds or pumpkins can be placed in the corners to add some color and soften the angular nature of the sukkah.

If you have potted flowers, they can be moved near to the sukkah during the holiday to add color and also help blur the line between the ground and the sukkah, so it looks more natural.

Sukkah Hospitality

Hospitality is an important and fun part of Sukkot. Inviting guests into your sukkah to share food allows those without a sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah. This hospitality goes back to Abraham, who was well known for his generosity toward guests.

Once again, in keeping with the harvest origins of the holiday, think about serving some food that incorporates produce that is plentiful at the time of the holiday. In our area, apples are in good supply and local tomatoes are usually still plentiful. Two foods we make every year that incorporate these ingredients are apple raisin nut cake and tabouleh — a Middle Eastern salad.

Apple-Raisin-Nut Cake

3 tablespoons margarine or butter

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3 medium apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks

1/2 cup raisins (soaked in water for 15 minutes)

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, mix together sugar and margarine or butter, then eggs and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add the liquid ingredients.
Lastly add apples, nuts and raisins.
Mix all ingredients thoroughly and pour into an 8-by-8-inch pan. (Double the recipe for a 9-by-13 pan.)
Bake at 350 F for about one hour. You will know it is ready when a knife you insert into the cake comes out clean.

Tabouleh

1 cup bulgar wheat (fine)

1 cup chopped chives, or a mixture of chopped chives and onions

1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley (preferably flat leaf type)

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint

1/2 cup olive oil

1/3 cup lemon juice

3 medium-sized tomatoes, diced

salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl combine the wheat with enough cold water to cover and soak for 10-15 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess water.
Mix the wheat and chives (or onion mixture) and squeeze together so that the juice penetrates into the wheat.
Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

Michael Brown is author of “The Jewish Gardening Cookbook: Growing Plants and Cooking for Holidays and Festivals” (Jewish Lights, 1998) and lives in New Jersey.

 

Fragility Around Us


On Sukkot, the Torah commands us to live in booths for seven days.

As if we need these temporary huts to remind us of life’s fragility.

Nevertheless, my husband, Larry, and I, along with three of our sons, dutifully haul down the disassembled pieces of our prefab sukkah from the garage rafters.

“Hey, this isn’t the holiday where we’re supposed to feel like slaves,” complains Jeremy, 13, while carting the first load to the backyard.

“Why do we have to build our own sukkah when the Israelities had God to build theirs?” chimes in Danny, 11.

But eventually, with as much grousing and grumbling as the original Israelites, my sons deposit the redwood lattice-work panels, support slats and minibungee cords in a disorderly pile in the backyard.

My husband stares at the pieces, knowing that the sukkah, which we purchased four years ago, came with no instructions save the overly optimistic “Easy to Assemble.”

But after a few false starts, the sukkah is built, never quite the same configuration as the previous year, but always rickety, vulnerable and in compliance with the talmudic requirements — three sides and a roof that is covered with palm leaves or other organic material, allowing more shade than sun, but permitting a view of the stars at night.

“All seven days of the festival, each one should turn the hut into his permanent residence, and his house into the temporary one,” the Talmud (Sukkah 2:9) tells us.

Spending time in the sukkah is supposed to remind us not to put our trust in a sturdy dwelling or a mass of material possessions that provide only the illusion of security. Rather, we should put our trust in God, who protected the Israelites while traveling in the wilderness for 40 years.

But this Sukkot, I don’t feel secure in my house or my sukkah.

Not when more than 3,000 civilians, firefighters and police officers weren’t safe in four airplanes, two 110-story office buildings and the Pentagon.

Not when Israelis can’t ride on an Egged bus, eat in a pizza parlor or attend a Passover seder in a hotel dining room without fearing for their lives.

And not when Americans and Israelis alike wait for the next suicide bomber, chemical or biological assault or even nuclear attack.

This Sukkot, it is God’s protective powers that seem illusory.

“I think God doesn’t protect us because he wants us to find our own way,” Danny says.

But we’ve been struggling to find our own way throughout history, only to encounter more enemies who want to annihilate us and more battles over our homeland. And God has stuck with us.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during Sukkot and which normally seems incongruous with the holiday’s joyous mood, is now alarmingly apropos: “Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun” (Sukkah 1:1-3).

The author of Ecclesiastes, purported to be King Solomon, points out that no matter how righteously or wickedly we live, we all come to the same end — death. But, at the same time, the author exhorts us to live life, whatever its duration, fully and enthusiastically, for Judaism is life-affirming, not nihilistic and despairing,

Or as my son Gabe, 15, says, “Even if we don’t feel safe, we must press on, just as the Jews did after Amalek, the Romans and even the Nazis. That’s what Sukkot is all about.”

And so this year, despite our doubts and fears, our reluctance and our half-heartedness, we press on.

We take comfort in the familiarity and the rituals of Sukkot — building and decorating the sukkah, celebrating and eating with family and friends and taking up the lulav and the etrog.

We take comfort in the fact that the Israelites, who dealt with their share of fears and foes, eventually reached the Promised Land.

Yes, the huts poignantly remind us of life’s brevity, but the holiday itself reaffirms life’s permanence. For Sukkot, the most important festival mentioned in the Bible, has been celebrated by Jews around the world for over three millennia, except during the Babylonian Exile.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun” (Sukkah 3:1).

Like the Israelites, this is our season to journey in a frightening and unknown wilderness, battling an elusive and evil enemy and suffering unbearable losses. The purpose yet escapes us, as does an awareness of God’s protective presence.

And like the Israelites, we hope to persevere and ultimately prevail. And to some day ritualize, commemorate and comprehend this dark period in our history.

The Grape Taste of Sukkot


As a child, I loved the bunches of grapes that hung from the palm leaves covering the roof of the sukkah. These small outdoor huts were built for Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that gives thanks for a fruitful harvest. They symbolize the huts used by harvest workers during biblical times. Although the sukkot were also decorated with fruits, sheaves of grain and autumn vegetables, it was the grapes that fascinated me.

Perhaps that is why, on a recent trip to Italy, I was so delighted to find, Schiaciatta Con L’uva (sweet flat bread with grapes) in Tuscany. The name refers to the somewhat squashed appearance of the pastry. Flavored with olive oil and fresh rosemary, this delicacy is covered with luscious purple, black or red Sangiovese grapes. You can make it with concord or seedless grapes; it will not be quite as authentic, but just as delicious.

Bar Marconi Sweet Grape Bread

Bar Marconi is just 20 minutes outside of Florence. Almost every day during the grape harvest, a large sign appears in bakery windows: "Oggi, Schiaciatta Con L’uva" ("Today, Grape Bread"). Their Schiaciatta resembles giant chocolate chip cookies. They sell it by the slice or the whole round pastry.

1 package active dry yeast

1¼2 cup sugar

1 cup warm water

1¼3 cup olive oil

2 eggs

3 1¼2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1¼4 cup minced fresh rosemary

3 cups concord or red grapes

1¼3 cup sugar

In a measuring cup, stir yeast and 1¼2 cup of the warm water with pinch of sugar and let stand five minutes until frothy. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, blend remaining water, olive oil, eggs and remaining sugar and mix well. Add yeast mixture, 3 cups of the flour, salt and rosemary, and blend until smooth and dough begins to come together. Dough will be a little sticky.

Transfer to a floured board and knead in remaining flour. Add grapes and gently knead into the dough. Add additional flour if dough is too sticky. Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1¼2 hours.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide in half. Stretch each half into a circle (9 or 10 inches in diameter) and arrange on two lightly oiled baking pans. Cover pastry with a towel and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 375 F and continue baking for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Makes two pastries.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” and “The 30-Minute
Kosher Cook.” Her Web site is http://members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

A Home in Nature


On Sukkot, we eat and sleep in a hut called a sukkah. We can see the stars and feel the wind. It reminds us of how dependent we are on nature to survive. This is a holiday to remember that nature is dependent on us, too. What can you do? Grow a garden. Don’t throw garbage into the ocean. Recycle. Love nature: hike in it, bike in it, swim in it!

Fruit of the Land

Y’know, it’s easy to get food nowadays. Just go to the supermarket and pick out some stuff. It wasn’t always so easy. People grew their fruits, vegetables and grain. If it didn’t rain, or rained too much, their crops would be ruined and they wouldn’t be able to eat. Dates and grapes — two of the fruits we eat on Sukkot to remind us of the fruit that grows in the Land of Israel.

Date-Raisin-Walnut Shofar

1 package (8 ounces) pitted dates

1 cup raisins

1¼2 cup sugar, divided

1¼4 pound (1 stick) margarine,

cut into small pieces

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

11¼2 teaspoons cinnamon

1¼2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 cup chopped walnuts

White decorating icing

in tube with writing tip

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease a large baking sheet.

In a food processor with a metal blade, pulse dates, raisins and 1/4 cup sugar until coarsely chopped.

Remove to a seperate bowl.

Place margarine and 1/4 cup sugar in food processor and process until mixed. Add vanilla and eggs and process until blended. Add flour, cinnamon, salt and orange juice. Pulse in walnuts. Mix together with raisins and dates.

Here’s the really fun part:

Remove dough to prepared baking sheet and shape it into a shofar about 17-inches long, 6 inches at its thickest point and 2 inches at its thinnest point.

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned. It will feel soft in the center, but will firm up as it cools.

To decorate:

Several hours before serving, write L’Shana Tova with white decorating icing across shofar.

Makes 16 servings.

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