Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.
A Sukkah of Our Own
Max came into the dining room, smiling. "Come outside and look," he said. My 11-year-old son and I looked at each other cautiously. We had just moved in with Max, my boyfriend. We did not know what to expect.
It was chilly outside and after we put on our fleeces, Max led us through the backyard and there, next to the juniper hedge, were some 2-by-4s propped against a tall fence to make a strange triangular shape, not unlike a teepee. Max had packed down the dirt beneath the boards and set up a table and six chairs. It was a sukkah, or an approximation of a sukkah, since it lacked almost everything required by Jewish law. But, for once, I didn't care about halacha. Instead, I cried and realized that this was why I loved this man.
Sukkot in North America is a chilly time of year. Photo: Flickr/Olivander.
For years, I have wanted to have a sukkah, my very own to sit in with my friends and my son. But as a single mom without many hardware skills, I felt overwhelmed at the thought of hammering even an "easy to assemble" sukkah kit into place. I pictured myself outside in the backyard, screwdriver in hand, and felt panicked. I knew my son would help, as best he could. But we do not live in a Jewish community. I am a convert, so my family is not Jewish. There was no handy Jewish person to come help us. There were no neighbors to invite over for dinner and when I thought of just the two of us out in the sukkah eating our dinner, I felt sad. And so for years, we went to our friends' houses and the rabbi's house to eat our meals.
"Look," Max said, "You can hang decorations here and here." He gestured toward the precariously balanced boards. He is as bad at building things as I am, so I knew even this rough "sukkah" had taken him hours to set into place. He smiled. "We don't want to bump into things, or it will all fall down." I laughed and my son grinned.
The next day, I went to the farmer's market and collected gourds and pumpkins. My son and I clumped some potted mums in the corners, piled the pumpkins along the edges, twisted yarn around the gourds and hung them from the boards. We were proud of our sukkah. Even though it didn't adhere to the rabbis' rules, I knew we had come near the spirit of the law.
Max came out to admire our handiwork. "Next year," he said, "We'll figure out how to do it right." I felt something inside me relax. For the first time in a long time, the future seemed exciting. I knew what Max was really saying. We were working toward creating a family and the strange little almost sukkah he had built, only a few weeks after we had moved in, was only a start, a promise for the real things that lay ahead.
I called my closest friends and invited them over for dinner, explaining that we didn't really have a sukkah. We only had something that was close to a sukkah. If you looked up you could see the sky and it was certainly a temporary structure, since even the slightest touch would knock the boards down. But I made sure to say that I would understand if they wanted to be truly observant and eat their dinners in a real sukkah.
Every single one of them came, though. Even my most traditional friends. And as I shook the lulav I remembered a teaching I had once read. When you stand with your lulav and point in all six directions, you are at the center of the universe. And for a moment, for the very first time, after all these years of Sukkot, I knew what that teaching meant. I was truly at the center. My center. There was nothing more I needed. I was outside in the wind. The clouds scudded across the moon and I felt a little chill. Something mysterious, something ancient and wonderful was happening.
As my friends ate dinner and laughed and talked like they always do, I sat back and watched. It was hard to believe that for the first time, I was the one hosting a Sukkot meal. I felt a little thrill of pride and realized why the rabbis said we needed to build sukkahs. Yes, it is important to remember the exodus. Yes, it is important to remember our role as stewards of this earth, and to think about the homeless and to read the rabbinical teachings about Sukkot, but sukkahs themselves are hard to create alone. Of course, I am sure there are handy people, who can do the whole thing themselves, but still you need other people to fill a sukkah. Perhaps the rabbis knew that like prayer, the celebration of Sukkot takes if not a minyan, at least, a community. And, that, I realized is what Max and I were beginning to build together. It was still a little shaky, like our sukkah, but I felt the promise all around us. We stayed outside for a long time that night. And the next morning, my son looked at me and said, "Mom, let's go eat breakfast in the sukkah."