Sukkot is under-appreciated as the Jewish answer to Christmas.
The Christmas analogy occurred to me last year, as my family strung lights and decorations from our sukkah’s branchy roof. Sukkot — or the “Festival of Tabernacles,” which begins Sunday evening — commemorates the fall harvest as well as the 40 years Jews wandered the desert, living in temporary huts.
Until our children attended a Jewish nursery school, neither my husband nor I had ever seen much purpose in building a transient field laborer’s tent In the backyard. And yet as we fastened the ornaments — most of them crafted from flimsy paper, dating back to the early years of our now twentysomething elder children — I was reminded of my own (Christian) childhood when my family decorated our Christmas tree. We kept a similar box of decorations that had accrued sentimental value over the years. Like the festively festooned tree, the finished sukkah exuded a fleeting, seasonal magic — and a spirit of thanksgiving and wellbeing.
Indeed, the sukkah is arguably better than a tree. You can walk into it and there eat under the stars and the twinkling of candle-lit lanterns. As I wrote last year, there are few things more appealing to small children than creating a little house you build yourself, decorate, and then eat in!
Compared to Passover, Hanukkah, or Purim, Sukkot gets less observance from non-Orthodox, North American Jews. Perhaps we’re all worn out from the High Holy Days. Yet the sukkah ritual -– which takes place outside of synagogue after all! – is precisely targeted to appeal to the more secular among us, just as putting up a Christmas tree is enjoyed by millions and not just the piously Christian.
While Israelis build their own sukkahs from scratch, most North Americans use “kit” sukkahs widely available online: mass-produced, snap-together units consisting of metal poles and canvas siding. A “schach” — or roof — can be ordered in addition, and consists of a rolled-up bamboo mat. It’s recommended you find yourself some 1″X 2″ wooden beams to attach to the metal frame, over which you’re supposed to drape your schach.
The finished effect is, frankly, ugly. I still remember the first kit we bought: The top half of the exterior canvas was colored militia gray, the bottom a dull blue. The flimsy mat — mass-produced in China, and not especially resonant of the Judaean hut we were trying to recreate — sagged through the gaps between the beams and even fell down a few times despite all of our attempts to secure it.
Even still, the kids loved it. They enjoyed hanging gourds and crayoned paper ornaments from the rickety rafters. I was dissatisfied, though. I decided there had to be a way to improve this sucka – and that it could be done beautifully, at reasonable cost in time and money.
So, after experimenting over the years with fabrics and sheets, this past summer I sketched a fabric panel set to replace the old canvas siding. I sent the sketch to my friend Rafi, at the Tel-Aviv textile design firm Mandala Life Art . After we selected fabrics, he created two stunning and simple panel kits for Fig Tree & Vine. The panels are 100% sturdy cotton, finished on both sides (interior and exterior). They glide on and off easily, and are held in place by ties. They fit most sizes of online snap sukkas, but we can also do custom sizes (contact firstname.lastname@example.org). Next year we will produce more pattern options.
Top, finishing hanging our “Sand” pattern sukkah panels; Below, the completed “Lake” pattern sukkah.
Having a gorgeously clad sukkah still doesn’t solve the schach problem, however.
In some Jewish cultures, they manage to embroider the roof with all kinds of fruits and vegetables. I’m not talented enough to do that, but you can certainly create a beautiful schach without having to resort to a sagging bamboo mat (which in the end discourages a roof made from greenery).
First, head to your local building supply store and have them cut heavy (2″x4″s) beams that will rest securely on the sukkah frame and not need tying. (Some sukkah companies sell both beams and plastic clips.) They should extend a few inches beyond each side of the frame. If you splurge on a nicer type of wood — such as cedar — it will age gracefully over the years. You could also find reclaimed wood, depending on where you live, such as from barns.
If you want to make the roof using smaller types of foliage, you can run natural twine between the beams, random spider-web style, as illustrated below; or simple drape larger branches on top and secure them with twine. Some building supply companies sell bamboo fencing/matting from Home Depot but I think this type of roofing can make the sukkot feel dark and less whimsical. (A helpful article here about how to do this can be read here.)
These are very simple branches woven into a twine schach but you could use boughs of cedar, large palm leaves, flowering branches, corn stalks, or any other kind of foliage that catches your fancy.
The effect is as magical as one could hope for, especially if you add lanterns and/or fairy lights, gourds, and homemade ornaments. Throw in a colorful indoor-outdoor mat and some patio furniture and you’re done. Invite family and friends over to break bread and imbibe the spirit of goodwill and gratitude.
Sukkah photos for Fig Tree & Vine by Johnny Cy Lam.