Jewish Journal

The Magic of Sukkot

Symbols of jewish fall festival of Sukkot, lulav - etrog, palm branch, myrtle and willow - on old wooden background.

As a child, I always wanted a sukkah. My family lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment in West Hollywood. The space had its drawbacks for our family of five, but all year long, the walls of our small dining area somehow expanded to accommodate a seemingly unlimited number of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. In our tiny kitchen, my mother cooked an array of Sephardic foods adorned with the artistic grandeur and culinary magic she brought from Algeria. There was only one holiday when physical limitations hindered us from celebrating our Jewish tradition in grand style: Sukkot.

We had no backyard or common area, and our single, tiny balcony could fit only a few chairs. So my family never was able to build its own sukkah.

Knowing how much I longed for my own sukkah, my mother would decorate the walls of our dining area with beautiful fabrics and the sukkah decorations I made at my Jewish day school. She suspended fruits from the small chandelier above our table, and — for the complete effect — affixed leaves to the low ceiling.

It may not have been a “real” sukkah, but it was the best we could do with the space we had. It was beautiful, it was meaningful and it was ours.

Still, I dreamed of having a sukkah of my own. Every year, I joined friends in the Bnei Akiva youth group to deliver palm fronds to Jewish homes all over Los Angeles. Along the way, I looked longingly at the variety of structures going up in people’s yards and driveways. 

One of my annual highlights was when one of our school rabbis would invite a group of us to a meal in his family’s sukkah. For my friends, those meals were breaks from their family sukkahs. For me, though, they were cherished opportunities. Some of my fondest memories are of those meals — singing, dancing and studying Torah with friends under the palm leaves.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to have a sukkah that blended the warmth my mother created in our dining room sukkah with the magical aura I felt in my rabbi’s sukkah.

That day finally came in 1993, when, after several years away from Los Angeles, I returned to become rabbi of a synagogue in Westwood, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. My wife, Peni, and I moved into a condominium building nearby. We didn’t have a backyard, but the common space was large enough to accommodate a sukkah.

As the holidays approached, I told Peni I would visit one of the Jewish stores to purchase a pre-fab sukkah.

She would have none of that. Peni grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brookline, Mass. Her father, a physicist whose own father ran a hardware store, built a sukkah every year on the family’s outdoor deck with a wood frame and yellow fiberglass sides. That lasted until Peni was in high school in 1985, the year Hurricane Gloria struck New England two days before Sukkot. As the family watched through the kitchen window, a gale lifted the entire sukkah off the deck and it crashed into the backyard, shattering into pieces.

With that formative experience in mind, Peni set to work, determined to build a sturdy sukkah (ignoring the fact that hurricanes don’t usually strike L.A.). She phoned her father for advice, then visited Anawalt Lumber to gather the materials: wood planks, screws and all the hardware. She proceeded to design, craft and build the most beautiful wooden sukkah I had ever seen.

I wasn’t blessed with my wife’s design or handiwork skills, so I was of little help. My only role in building this sukkah was to provide the schach — the palm fronds that form the sukkah’s rooftop. “After all these years, you can finally build your own sukkah,” my mother said, laughing, “and all you’re doing is putting palm fronds on top? Really?”

Feeling totally inadequate, I set out to find the best available schach. If this was going to be my one limited role in my first-ever sukkah, I was going to make this the most awesome roof that a sukkah had ever seen. But before I did that, I decided to study all of the halachah (Jewish law) relating to schach.

While Peni was sawing wood and crafting the walls, I sat at my desk with a host of rabbinic commentaries on schach. As I studied, I discovered that while my role was less creative and physically demanding than Peni’s, it was no less meaningful.

The Talmud tells of the “great sukkah debate,” a disagreement about the meaning of the Torah verse in which God says, “I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). According to Rabbi Akiva, the text is referring to actual sukkahs, physical structures. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He says the sukkahs weren’t actual structures — the “sukkot” were God’s protective clouds of glory, which hovered above the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness.

While Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation describes the sukkah as a complete structure with walls — an opinion with which Peni would concur — Rabbi Eliezer’s view depicts the entire sukkah as a protective rooftop. In other words, the schach is the sukkah. So, according to Rabbi Eliezer, by acquiring and adding the roof, I would be the one actually building the sukkah. (Try explaining that to my wife, who was outside in protective goggles, sawing and drilling wood.)

I set out to acquire schach, keeping in mind the Mishnah’s rule that the roof material can be anything “not susceptible to ritual impurity and that grows from the soil.” Instead of calling Bnei Akiva, I drove my compact Datsun to a nearby park and gathered the 15 most attractive palm fronds I could find. I somehow fit them into the car — the “magic” of Sukkot, I guess.

Arriving home full of joy and excitement, I climbed a ladder and placed the greenery atop the beautiful walls Peni had created. The two of us stood and admired the gorgeous sukkah we had constructed together, blending the spirit of both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer.

At last, I had my sukkah. What remained was for us to re-create the beautiful aura I remember from my Sephardic home’s dining-area sukkah, my rabbi’s spiritual teachings in his sukkah and from Peni’s cherished family memories. 

One of the texts I remembered learning in my childhood rabbi’s sukkah described the custom of the 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero to refrain from idle chatter and mundane conversation while sitting underneath the schach. Cordovero’s custom was rooted in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, that the schach represents God’s protective clouds. Because we are directly underneath them, he taught, we should engage in positive and spiritual exchanges. Cordovero turned his sukkah into a beit midrash, a house of Torah study, where the discussions around the table were matters of the intellect and the spirit.

Peni and I were eager to bring that spirit into our first sukkah. That first week was magical. We invited my parents and siblings, congregants, friends, colleagues and neighbors. One guest, an architect, marveled at the quality of the structure. “You have great talent with design and building,” he said to me.

I laughed and directed him to my wife. “All I did was put the branches on top,” I said.

Surrounded by loved ones, we stayed up late into each night of Sukkot that year, singing, eating, drinking and celebrating this unique tradition.

The sukkah is a Jewish space like no other. For seven special days, it can become our refuge from the negative politics and controversies of the outside world. By limiting our speech under the schach to Torah, literature, poetry, music, art and science, we can make it a “house of Divine wisdom.” Cordovero’s custom can empower us to turn our sukkot into libraries of the soul and sanctuaries of the spirit.

Not to mention ideas. The Israeli author S.Y. Agnon, a personal favorite, once described himself as “one who sits and writes stories in a small sukkah.” It may have been small, but it inspired such great stories and novels that in 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, making him Israel’s first Nobel laureate. If the sukkah worked for Agnon, maybe it could work for the rest of us.

The theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” The sukkah can serve as a palace of big ideas with the schach — God’s protective clouds — not only hovering above our heads but penetrating our minds and souls.

Over 24 years, Peni and I have hosted hundreds of guests in our sukkah. Besides creating the structure of the sukkah, Peni, who comes from an Ashkenazic family, learned to masterfully re-create the Sephardic dishes from my mother’s kitchen. From her own childhood come her bubbe’s rolled cabbage and homemade gefilte fish and the traditional Ashkenazic zemirot (religious songs), which we love to sing. Together, we have worked to create a sukkah table that, in a sense, represents Jewish unity.

That sense isn’t limited to food and songs. We are committed to making our sukkah a place where Jews of all backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable. Under the palm fronds and within the walls, we have heard and shared stories in French, tunes in Ladino, prayers in Arabic, recipes in Farsi, poems in Spanish, and Israeli songs. Our children have hosted sukkah sleepovers, and our sukkah walls have embraced passionate discussions over Israel and other emotional issues, all in the spirit of celebrating unity within our community’s diversity.     

That seems fitting for Sukkot, the one holiday for which the Torah invites Jews of various backgrounds to bond as one and sit together: “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42) Based on that verse, the Talmud envisions a grand Jewish gathering: “This teaches that all Israel are able to sit in one sukkah.”

By inviting all Jews to sit in one sukkah and enjoy God’s shelter from the same schach above our heads, Sukkot asks us all — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Chassidic, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Israeli and Diaspora Jews — to celebrate our differences together, at least for a week.

Our celebration at home often includes non-Jews, as well. Many of them have marveled at the unique beauty of the experience. “If this is the way the Israelites lived in the desert,” one told me, “they should have stayed there!”

Amid all of its festivities, Sukkot presents an irony. In our prayers, we refer to the holiday as Z’man Simchateinu, “our season of joy.” One would think that joy would include indulging in all of the physical comforts in life. Yet on Sukkot, we are commanded to celebrate by leaving the comfort of our homes.

Raising our children in Los Angeles, Peni and I have worked hard to teach our kids that life isn’t all about your ZIP code or the year and make of your car. Sukkot, when we find joy while living outside, beneath palm leaves, has helped us convey that message to them.

More than once, we have hosted children who live in homes so large that they could have sukkahs bigger than the entire apartment I grew up in. These families don’t build sukkahs, but when their children come to ours, they seem as captivated as I was all those years ago in my school rabbi’s sukkah.

Think of how we spend money on electronics — phones, tablets, laptops — and just a few months later, the new model comes out, and the one we have isn’t good enough anymore, and we convince ourselves that we must upgrade. Sukkot challenges us to think differently. It reminds us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment and much more.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer agreed that when the Jews wandered in the wilderness, a sukkah protected them.

My own Sukkot journey has taken me from the decorated walls of my little dining room to the schach I placed atop the beautiful walls built by Peni. Throughout, one common thread has remained: The real magic of Sukkot lies not in what you build, but how you live within it. 

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem and executive offices in Los Angeles. He also is an instructor of Talmud at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.