Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Sukkot: A Chance to Change Your Routines and Have Some Fun
As a Protestant, I have to admit I had never heard of the holiday of Sukkot until I met my Jewish wife, Bonnie. I'd be surprised if 10 percent of the non-Jewish population of our hometown of Ann Arbor had heard of it either. It's just not a holiday that gets a lot of press. This is really a shame, because, over the last decade, I have found it to be one of the most enjoyable holidays of either religion. It is a time to remember the Jews who wandered the desert for forty years, a time to celebrate the harvest, and a time to spend with family and friends.
1999 was a big year for my family. Not only was our second daughter born, but we also moved into a new house. Coincidentally, we happened to move in right before Sukkot. After getting the majority of boxes emptied and put away, I came across our disassembled sukkah. A sukkah is a structure, sort of a wooden hut, that Jewish families build in their backyards during Sukkot to remind them of the portable huts the Jews lived in while they were wandering in the desert. Usually they are built of wood and are decorated with all sorts of items, including gourds, corn stalks, and paper chains. Of course, no Sukkot celebration is complete without a lulav (palm branch) and an etrog (fruit, kind of like a big lemon). However, you need to order new ones each year from your temple. This is my wife's job, which she has been known to forget.
We had bought this particular sukkah kit (lumber, brackets, screws, and all) at a temple fundraiser a few years ago. As I took inventory of the different pieces, I was delighted that it was almost time to put it up. This meant, for the time being, that I wouldn't have to find a place to store it in our already over-stuffed garage.
When the first day of Sukkot arrived, I dragged all the parts to the backyard. It only took me an hour and a half to raise the structure. Over the years, I have really gotten this thing down to a science. I'm like an Indy pit crew with my power drill. Sometimes my Jewish father-in-law is in town to help me, and we can build it in under an hour. You should see the sparks fly then--we're good!
I was just putting the finishing touches on our sukkah when my next-door neighbor stopped over to talk. He is one of the nicest people you could meet, but he had a wary look on his face. He was curious about this "shed" that I was building that took up a majority of our small backyard. I'm sure he thought that "Sanford and Son" had just moved in next to him. He was greatly relieved when I told him about my wife's holiday and that the sukkah would be coming down at the end of Sukkot. Once I told him about the festival, he didn't care how long it was up. He actually thought it was nice to have something different going on in the neighborhood.
One of my favorite things about Sukkot is that it is a time to celebrate with neighbors, friends and family. It is a tradition to invite guests to join in a holiday meal in the sukkah. So, Bonnie and I put a table and chairs in the sukkah, invite our friends over and have meals in it. It takes backyard barbecuing to a whole new level. When our friends come over, we cook tasty dishes, the kids and their friends decorate, and the grown-ups sit in the sukkah for hours talking once the kids are in bed. It's refreshing to be with company in a different environment, where the TV is off, and the phone is left in the house. You'd be amazed at what this does for the quality of conversation. Most of our Jewish friends, however, do not build a sukkah. When they come over for dinner, they laugh at how it took a Protestant to get them to celebrate in the proper way.
Another great part of Sukkot is the requirement that the roof of the sukkah be covered with branches, palms, leaves, etc., so that a certain percentage of the sky is visible. It must be open enough so you can see the stars at night. I've always loved to camp, and now that my four-year-old, Gabby, is into camping, I think this might be the year we pull out the sleeping bags. Sure, we're not in the woods or mountains--it's just our backyard. However, there's something rewarding about being able to teach your daughter about her holidays. To have fun while doing it is a bonus. We can pretend we're in the desert with Moses. The stars will be out (hopefully), we can sing songs, and in the morning, when my back is stiff, I can take a long hot shower.
Our lives can get pretty routine at times, so I enjoy the opportunity to do something different and build the sukkah. If ever there were a chance to do the out-of-the-ordinary, a chance to turn your backyard into a magical place, this would be it.