Our First House: a Sukkah
It is not long after I married him and it is raining, hard enough to wet our faces as we bend over boards and beams. My new husband’s name is Pete, or Peter Bullard Budd though I’ve never actually called him that.
Inexplicably, we are both in good moods or at least, not complaining. I am not sure why except that being raised in a family of non-observant Episcopalians probably means you don’t complain. I try to imitate him with limited success, being from a family of entrenched and inveterate kvetchers.
It is not only raining; it is starting to get dark. Because of me, Pete is out here mishing with our sukkah, a temporary mini-house meant to approximate booths used by Jews on ancient pilgrimages. The sukkah was given to me two years before by a dear friend and started me on the road to a new life and the beginning of new traditions. Tonight it is becoming a tradition for our family—for Pete, me and my son Josh, who is now Pete’s stepson.
This is how you know someone loves you: when he forgoes sitting inside by the fireplace you don’t have and ventures out into the damp to build a shack (oops! booth!) for a holiday he’s never heard of. We have got far enough so two walls have now been raised. I look up at them, realizing we are about to run into a tree and will have to move everything backwards. Looking up makes me think of the lulav and etrog, and I realize I’ve never explained them to Pete.
In his family, traditions are more relaxed: Fourth of July at his family cabin, Christmas and New Years, Thanksgiving. I, on the other hand, grew up with all sorts of Jewish holidays and none of them seemed even remotely relaxing. When I had been married to a cantor, observing holy days and rituals was commonplace. But after a couple of years on my own, and now remarried to someone who isn’t Jewish, I am more or less starting over again.
How do you explain something like the lulav and etrog, let alone a sukkah? The first ones I ever saw were at my Jewish day-school in Patterson, New Jersey. I was six and had just begun to learn Hebrew. The teacher brought us into a large, bright sukkah decorated with paper chains and goodies. We sat at long tables covered with white tablecloths and ate snacks on paper plates: potato chips, nuts and apples. Teacher then brought out a lulav and etrog, which appeared to be something like a long willow branch and a fragrant lemon. But not exactly.
If you look in the Torah (and no doubt you will as soon as you finish reading this), you’ll see there is a commandment in Leviticus to gather four species of tree branches:
“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before HaShem your God seven days.”
A lulav is a palm branch held together with two willow branches and three myrtle branches. During Sukkot you are supposed to wave the lulav around and say special blessings. At the same time you are holding the citron we call etrog. I’ve seen worshipers doing this on holidays and it has always made me smile. In fact it can be quite funny to see people who always look well-dressed shaking these branches like disco dancers. But thinking about lulav rituals also makes me think about past holidays, which I don’t want to do now. I look at Pete instead.
The boards are slip sliding around so much he decides to break out a hammer and nails. The instructions said this would be the easiest construction job we would ever have, but I think they meant that for people who actually build things, which in any case would not be me.
The rain seems to be subsiding a bit but the wind is picking up, and I’m thinking about calling it quits and finishing some time later. At that moment, our next door neighbor Katie comes out with two steaming cups of coffee.
“I saw you guys out here and thought you could use this,” she says, and my heart lifts a little. Katie isn’t Jewish either, and she has no idea what we’re doing. But just the fact that we’re knocking around back here in this rotten weather is enough to bring her out with something to cheer us up. So maybe the sukkah has already brought three people together that otherwise might not be.
That could just be my look-on-the-bright-side fantasy attitude (though I’m not known for them, I promise.) We pull the walls back from the tree and raise a beam, me holding it up while Pete ties and nails it into place. The roof will be made of these beams tied over with branches, a most impermanent structure inviting rain, wind and all of nature inside.
It was created to remind us of the migrants we were, in deserts and forests throughout history. It was created to remind us we are here temporarily and can take nothing for granted, whether it’s our marriages, relationships, bodies, or livelihoods. It was created, I think, to give us the kind of joy and silliness we can find only in moments, knowing on the other side of rain are memories you nail together inch by inch with the taste of coffee on your tongue.
I don’t say this to Pete and don’t tell him about the lulav and etrog either. One can only do so much in the rain and for now, putting up this sukkah is enough. Since we are renting the home we’ve moved into together, this little booth is actually the first house we own. Is that a sign of something? Impermanence, or not taking each other for granted? I prefer the latter. I’m hoping he does, too.