Sukkah splendor

The sukkah in the backyard of Leat Silvera’s home in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles is up a little early this year. It’s not because she’s trying to get a jump on the holidays; it’s because she needs a place to look at her work — three large sukkah wall hangings that she designed herself. She’s just gotten the samples of her mass-produced versions on waterproof canvas back from China, and something about the color in one of them isn’t right. While it would likely be overlooked by anyone but Silvera, she’s not going to let it slide, so there’s more tweaking to do.

Silvera traces her aesthetic sense to growing up with her family in Los Angeles, particularly her father. For them, Sukkot was a special holiday, a time of joy and celebration, and it was in their tradition that Silvera got her start. She grew up in a traditional home, but when she was 12, her brother was tragically killed by a drunk driver, and her parents started going to Chabad. It was through Chabad that Silvera and her family drew closer to Judaism. “My father, who’s a contractor, liked to build these beautiful, elaborate wooden sukkahs in his backyard. And he would take the time to pleat these beautiful white sheets all the way around; it would take him days and days. One year, he ran out of the amount of sheets, and he just made a few walls flat, and I looked at them and I said, ‘Can I draw a picture on them?’ ”

Silvera’s father gave her permission to experiment. “A few sharpies later, I had a couple of designs on there, and they loved it,” said Silvera. Her family and their friends liked the designs so much that, according to Silvera, “the next year all the sukkah walls became flat, and I had to paint all the walls in the Sukkah.”

When Silvera went off to college at UCLA to study fine art, she left her sukkah-decorating days behind for a while. Her work at school — oil paintings focusing on realism — was completely different from the work she produces now. “These are whimsical,” she says, showing off the three sukkah wall hangings she’s made, “they’re much more bright and colorful.”

Silvera’s wall hangings are indeed colorful, and quite large, measuring 8 feet by 5 feet, and they are meant to transport the viewer to a peaceful, joyous place. One depicts a scene of rabbis dancing in the street with Torahs, another, a scenic view from a window ringed by pomegranates, and the third, a playful Jerusalem landscape.

“I had a lot of requests for doing the ushpizin,” said Silvera of the traditional welcoming of the seven exalted guests to the Sukkah, “and I did a lot of sketch work for it, and I worked it through and everything, but what ended up happening is that you didn’t capture a moment, you captured a lot of different moments, and to me that’s very distracting and almost disturbing as an artist, so I dropped it.” 

“What I like to do in general with art is just capture a moment in time, a moment of emotion that can pull you in,” said Silvera. To do this, she goes through numerous sketches before settling on moments that speak to her.

The process is a welcome one for Silvera, now in her 30s and the mother of four boys whom she home-schools. Silvera used to hide most of her paintings once they were completed, but now she sells them, and having them hanging in sukkahs around Los Angeles is a huge step for her. “Whatever anyone gets from that, even just a little bit of happiness, a little bit of joy, a little bit of that transportive feeling, that’s an incredible amount of fulfillment for me as an artist.”

Silvera started making her wall hangings for a wider audience last year. She’d painted the one of the rabbis dancing with the Torahs, and “decided I’d make about 50 copies and see what happens. The problem was, they came the morning before Sukkot.”

Undeterred by the late hour, Silvera pushed ahead with her plans to sell her pieces. “The morning of Sukkot I went to some close neighbor friends and said ‘I have them, what do you think?’ Not only did they buy them, but they called their mother-in-law, their best friend, and long story short, I sold maybe, that morning, 25 pieces.” Silvera was extremely pleased with the results. “I thought, OK, this is nice, this is something people want to have in their sukkahs. So I’ve created two more for this year; we’re selling all three of them this year, and hopefully people will enjoy them.” In addition to the dancing rabbis, there are lyrical images of Jerusalem, painted in soft washes of color.

Silvera currently sells her pieces at her Web site,, each priced $225, and she has also been trying other ways to get them noticed. “I’m trying to distribute them through shuls, through schools, Facebook, Pinterest, using whatever mediums I can through the Internet, but mostly I think it’s going to be word-of-mouth, because you can’t really tell what these look like until you see them in person.”

More than anything, Silvera feels lucky to be able to use her artistic talent to brighten one of her favorite holidays for others. “To me, it [Sukkot] is the apex of it all [the Holy Days season] and brings everybody together in such a wonderful way,” Silvera said. She sees how many of her friends want to make their sukkahs beautiful, but maybe don’t have the time or skill to pull it off.

“Maybe I can help. It’s almost like me coming into their sukkahs and helping paint a little mural to make it feel more beautiful for them.”

And since all three of her murals strongly evoke Israel, where she’s visited many times and to which she feels a strong connection, she feels like she’s bringing people closer to the Holy Land as well. “Sukkot is my favorite time in Israel. … I love seeing the apartment buildings where every balcony has a sukkah, and every staircase has a sukkah, and they’re just everywhere, and when you walk down the streets, you hear singing from outside, everyone has kind of removed themselves from that incubation or that secluded area of inside, and now everybody’s open and out and together.”

I’m Dreaming of My School’s Sukkah

The sound of metal folding chairs scraping against rocky parking lot asphalt always gives me the chills — but only in a good way.

To me it’s the sound of Sukkot in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, where I ate soggy tuna sandwiches and carrot sticks out of rumpled paper bags for most of my childhood Sukkots.

Days before Sukkot, my friends and I would leave our classrooms at Yavneh Hebrew Academy and parade down Beverly Boulevard to Shaarei Tefila, where we would sit in the palm-dappled sunlight gluing bright construction paper strips into garlands. We would wrap those chains through the schach and all around the plywood walls, where scraps of faded decorations clung to staples from years past. Sometimes we would attach all the stretches of garland together, seeing just how far we could make that chain snake along the sukkah walls.

In my early childhood, before my family started building our own sukkah, this was Sukkot for me.

These are memories that most Orthodox day school children of today won’t have, since day schools started closing for Sukkot in the last 10 or 15 years.

As a working mother, I find the eight-day vacation to be an inconvenience at best, a disaster at worst — it comes a few weeks into school, just when kids have finally transitioned into their new environment.

But as a day school graduate, I am hit much harder by the loss of Sukkot at school and the lifelong memories and positive associations that will slip away because of it.

During Sukkot we could always count on a special field trip and at least a couple hours worth of sukkah hopping. My Yavneh classmates and I would chatter along Martel Street, up Fuller and down Alta Vista, pulling carob pods off trees and visiting sukkahs of classmates and even teachers (they had houses and families and life out of school?). At each stop we got a treat — dates, ice cream, candy — and usually a bit of Torah and a song or two. We benched lulav, saying the blessing and shaking the flittering palm and twisting the fragrant etrog.

Sukkot is a holiday whose physicality can’t be denied. It’s all about where you are sitting, what you are smelling, touching and tasting. It’s about guests and community and inviting people in.

All of that sensory input has the inevitable effect of penetrating through to your soul, making the rituals deep and memorable. It’s why Sukkot, to this day, is my favorite holiday of the year, why I still sit down with my kids to cut the construction paper into strips and tape them into interlocking rings.

Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, the new dean at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, said he too laments the loss of Sukkot in school.

“When you experience sitting in the sukkah, decorating the sukkah, not only with family, but also with your friends, and visiting each other, and sukkah parties — what happens is you actually feel it and you actually internalize the message of Sukkot,” Sufrin said.

Rabbi Zalman Uri, head of the Orthodox day schools division for the Bureau of Jewish Education, said the change came about to rectify a situation that was considered a halachic compromise. While most of the halachic prohibitions in effect on Yom Tov don’t apply during Chol Hamo’ed, the intermediate days of Sukkot, the rabbis wanted to be sure that the days were still recognized as mo’ed — festive. They prohibited certain actions — writing, commerce — unless there was a significant loss that would be incurred.

When the Yeshiva Principals Council originally considered the matter under Rabbi Uri’s direction decades ago, they came to the conclusion that what would be lost was the opportunity for children who did not have sukkahs at home to celebrate Sukkot. They decided to keep the doors open.

“Now times have changed — thank God for that,” said Uri. “We have a good number of parents — the majority — who have a sukkah and lulav and etrog at home, so the rationale is no longer relevant.”

Add to that the fact that the staggered days between Yom Tov were usually taken up with things like a longer davening and special activities for the holiday, leaving less time for real academics, and there is enough there to close the school doors.

But that also closed the doors on a joyous, hands-on experience that surely had more impact than sitting in a classroom learning about which greens go where on the lulav, and in what order it gets shaken.

The Conservative and Reform schools still meet on Sukkot, knowing, perhaps, that many of their students don’t have sukkahs at home, but also recognizing that Sukkot is one of the few chances in the year to have a living holiday workshop.

“Rather than teaching about Sukkot, we do it,” said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, Judaic director of the elementary school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Aside from eating in and decorating the sukkah, students have music, storytime and reading groups in one of the school’s two sukkahs.

“If you think of it and treat it as a natural extension of the classroom, it becomes just that,” Ben-Naim said.

Back in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, by the end of the week the construction paper red had faded to pink, the green to a queasy yellow. We never tried to save those decorations from year to year, knowing we would be back the next year to make fresh ones.

Then, one year, the students didn’t come back to continue the tradition and the chain was broken. And that’s too bad, because there’s a whole pile of construction paper waiting from some good, strong glue to keep it together.