The winds blow, leaves fall, and down goes the sukkah. Less a lyric than a nightmare, the reality of the approaching holiday is that for as joyous as it is to celebrate Sukkot outdoors, for many Pittsburghers, the festival’s recognizable makeshift dwellings are often boxes built of horror.
“As a kid, all you want to do is fit in,” said David Knoll, 38.
Considering the Knoll family’s construct, “fitting in” takes on new meaning.
“Ours was from a guy from shul,” Knoll said. “This was pre-chat groups or Craigslist. My dad found some guy who was getting rid of a heavy wood octagon-shaped sukkah.”
For 10 years, the Knolls used the same structure, and although there were a lot of sukkahs in West Hempstead, N.Y., where Knoll grew up, only one was octagonal, he said. Making matters worse was that apart from sticking out like a green-shaded stop sign, the eight-sided hut had the most natural of covers.
As opposed to using rollable bamboo mats or freshly delivered evergreen bundles for schach (temporary roofing), “every year before Sukkos, we had to go around the neighborhood collecting branches that fell or that gardeners had cut down.”
Only once was it a pleasurable experience, recalled the now Squirrel Hill resident.
“When I was 7, Hurricane Gloria hit right before Sukkos so there were trees knocked down everywhere,” Knoll said. “It was the happiest Sukkot we ever had, because piles of schach were everywhere.”
Hebrew literature terms the holiday “the season of rejoicing,” but for South Hills residents, Sukkot 2010 was the season of the storm.
On the night of Sept. 22 that year a “powerful microburst hit the South Hills,” recalled Marty Altschul. “Just as Temple Emanuel Torah Center classes were about to start,” the storm struck and lifted the temple’s sukkah “out into the middle of Bower Hill Road.”
While the tumultuous tempest disrupted the planned spaghetti dinner and services at Temple Emanuel, all was calm outside of the rabbi’s house. Though the gale had leveled trees, uprooted frames and knocked out power throughout the neighborhood, “my new sukkah withstood the elements,” said Rabbi Mark Mahler. “To mix a metaphor, or more accurately to mix Jewish holidays, Nes gadol haya po: A great miracle happened here!”
As wondrous as the holiday is, specific stipulations dictate the necessary dimensions of a sukkah. According to the Shulchan Aruch, a 16th-century code of Jewish law, the smallest ones may possess three walls, with each side being at least 28 inches long and 40 inches high. In practice, most sukkahs are much larger and because of the space required for erecting the provisional bungalows, they are commonly built in back or front yards, away from kitchens and up or down stairs.
Given the placement of these transient domiciles, the festival of booths is often an exercise in schlepping. But before thinking about tables or chairs, whose state of fluidity is derived both from their perpetual movement and the incessant spilling that Sukkot spurs, Rabbi Stacy Petersohn shuddered at the memory of transporting materials years ago.
“I do recall having to carry giant palm fronds for schach several blocks in the Jerusalem heat, then climbing about six or seven flights of stairs until we reached the roof where we were building our sukkah,” said the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.
At least it was only trekking to procure Mediterranean leaves. Rob Itskowitz, of Squirrel Hill, remembers having to hop his neighbor’s fence, enter their yard and retrieve the family sukkah that the wind had carried over.
While Itskowitz’s is a humorous holiday anecdote, in the vault of sukkah stories, one tale is a keeper.
“We moved to Richmond, Va., in August 2004, and the first Shabbos we were there was the Shabbos of Sukkos,” recalled Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck.
On Sunday night, after a “very intense introduction to the community,” Yolkut and his wife sat down in their sukkah for a quiet meal of leftovers. Though connected to the house, the sukkah was on the back porch and up a few stairs from the ground.
“We take our leftovers from yuntiff, we’re sitting there talking, and the next thing we know, a raccoon runs up the stairs and into the sukkah,” Yolkut said. “We start yelling. We’re totally shocked, and the door to the house was totally open.”
Perhaps reacting to the surprise, the raccoon bolted from the sukkah and hurried into the home.
Their initial fright became hysteria as the Yolkuts realized that their 18-month-old baby was sleeping upstairs.
The raccoon had gone into a guest room and “in an act of bravery, I ran after the raccoon and slammed the door to the room that it was in.”
When the Yolkuts phoned next door asking what to do, the neighbors offered to bring over their dog.
“We had these cartoon visions of the dog and raccoon running circles around each other, so we decided to call 911. However we were told by the operator to contact animal control, who told us that they don’t open until 9 a.m., which was roughly 12 hours later,” said Yolkut.
Not wishing to share the holiday with their mammalian guest, the rabbi used folding tables “and made a series of walls from the guest room out to the door and into the sukkah.” Next, “I very gingerly turned the knob with my hand and pushed it open with a broom.”
Immediately, the raccoon “shot out of the door and followed the path.” Once the critter reached the sukkah, Yolkut slammed the door between both enclosures.
As the couple watched from inside, the raccoon jumped on the table, grabbed a round challah, raised it up and began eating.
“At this point we decided to call the neighbor and say, ‘It’s time for the dog,’” Yolkut said.
Upon the sound of barking, the raccoon, which was still feasting on the circular bread, perked its ears up, looked around wildly and rushed out of the sukkah.
Such seasonal stories may have been anticipated by another Jewish writer centuries ago, as when discussing the sukkah, Philo of Alexandria, presciently noted, “For there is no pleasure greater than in high prosperity to call to mind old misfortunes.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.