Finding My Spiritual Home In The Sukkah Hut

Sukkot has always been special to me. But something about this year just feels even more special.

When I was in college, I wielded my first power tools while helping our student Hillel erect their massive sukkah, which would be host to all number of Sukkot dinners, lunches, and other activities during the 10-day holiday. After I graduated college, moved out on my own, and began living my official “adult” life, I never had a chance to build a sukkah — most rental owners frown on tenants just randomly constructing a sukkah on their properties. It wasn’t until I finally was in my own home, with its very own yard, however cramped, that I got excited about the possibility of finally building a sukkah of my own.

It took two years before I finally ordered a lulav and etrog from Israel, intent on building that sukkah with my husband. He and I talked through a general idea of how we could make it work with some 2x4s and wooden garden lattices. But we didn’t get to make it that year, despite the fragrant etrog, myrtle, willow, and palm sitting in our fridge, just waiting to get their shake on. (In hindsight, that sukkah would have been a disaster.)

That year, Sukkot coincided with my IVF cycle. After four years of infertility, we were finally moving forward on our first IVF attempt. The timing was such that my reproductive endocrinologist wanted me on bedrest for four days following embryo transfer — and the first day of Sukkot was right smack in the middle of my bedrest period. With no solid plan on actually how to construct our sukkah, I wasn’t about to let a $65 lulav and etrog set shipped from Israel to my house go to waste. So on the first night of Sukkot in 2012, my husband took the lulav and etrog, and shook them at me while reciting the blessings.

A womb is just as much a temporary dwelling as a sukkah, so it seemed fitting to shake the lulav and etrog at me.

A friend told me that it was good luck to bite off the pitam—the remnants of the flowering end of the etrog—once the Sukkot holiday was over. One Jewish old wives’ tale said that the bitten-off pitam placed under a laboring woman’s pillow would ease her labor pains. Another contends that a pregnant woman who eats etrog during her last month of pregnancy will give birth to a sweet-smelling child.

Our son was three when we finally decided that it was time to put up a sukkah of our own. We had survived his premature birth, his 10 weeks of colic, and all the joys, foibles, and the whirlwind of milestones that come with toddlerhood.

We were exceptionally fortunate to be able to participate in the PJ Library Sukkat Shalom program through the Lappin Foundation on the Massachusetts North Shore. It’s a tremendously generous outreach program for Jewish families in the North Shore: Our family received an 8x8 foot sukkah kit from The Sukkah Project for free, along with a complimentary lulav and etrog to use for the holiday.

It just a little under two hours, we had built our first family sukkah.

It was exciting to have finally built one of our very own, and especially for me on a personal note, since the last one I had built was when I was in college. We tried to hang out and eat in it as much as we could, but New England weather is always unpredictable, and we didn’t get to dwell in our sukkah as much as we liked. But it was a wonderful way to get to know the neighbors across the street—an older couple we didn’t know are Jewish. We invited them over to come shake the lulav and etrog, and they happily joined us on the first night.

And just as quickly as the sukkah goes up, 10 days later, the sukkah comes down—a reminder of the impermanence that comes with 40 years of wandering, 40 years of hastily constructed and deconstructed refugee camps in the search to find a homeland of their own—to put down roots instead of just huts.

This year it only took us a little over an hour to put up the sukkah—we had the routine down, and these really are idiot-proof sukkah kits. Now that our son was 4, he could participate much more than he could last year, climbing up on the ladder with dad to hand him bungee ties or helping to sweep off the sukkah’s patio floor.

I actually had the forethought to go out and buy a few decorations, besides the single decoration we had last year: Our son’s Star of David made with craft sticks at his Jewish preschool, complete with ribbon and bright plastic beads. I hit up the Target Dollar Spot and grabbed a few fall-themed tchotchkes, garlands, banners, and a sign that said simply, “gather” in pretty rose gold paint. It was hardly the luxury sukkah with cashmere accents and a $10,000 price tag—but it was ours, and it was perfect.

On Monday, as the world awoke to the incomprehensible tragedy in Las Vegas, Nevada, I took a hike with my son and my parents to America’s Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire. While definitely a tourist trap, it was wondrous to get out into nature after writing on the breaking news cycle for the first half of that awful, awful day. My son and I picked up leaves from the forest floor, intent on making some other kind of decoration for the sukkah.

On the first night of Sukkot, my husband was out of town, but that didn’t stop my son and I from having takeout Indian food in our sukkah, eating by the light of our camping lanterns. It didn’t stop me the next day when I worked outside in the sukkah while my son played in his sandbox. There’s something pretty rad about having peanut and jelly sandwiches in the sukkah, too—the wind rustling the cornstalk sechach (the sukkah roof), the sun slowly meandering across our driveway, the chatter of finches and the squawking of blue jays.

I’ve spent more time outdoors in the last three days than I have in a long time, and it feels good. Within the green tarp walls of our sukkah, I escape the hubbub of Halloween tourism bustling just blocks away. I don’t have to think about the dishes in the sink, the fact that there’s no soccer on Sunday because it’s a holiday weekend, or whether or not I remembered to share my news articles on social media. Twitter takes a break. Facebook is paused. I indulge in Instagram if only to document this feeling of spiritual gratitude I’ve felt since the day our sukkah went up.

After a summer with a challenging and pervasive depressive episode, everything about this Sukkot has felt peaceful, grounded, and restorative. I remain hopeful that these feelings are not as temporal at our sukkah, that my days of wandering through depression and anxiety are coming to an end—at least for now— and that the restoration of my spiritual and mental wellbeing finally takes root.

Storytelling for social good: Humanize. Ignite. Persist.

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