My first sukkah had metal poles and burlap walls. It wasn’t really a sukkah, rather pieces that were put together into a sukkah. The metal poles weren’t really poles, they were L shaped metal pieces that had been cut to the correct dimensions. They were held together by screws which we first got from my Uncle Milty who was in the screw business. After my father and an uncle or cousin would get the poles in place we kids would then be called in to put the screws where they belonged. The burlap walls were awful. They smelled a little like wet dog and to this day the scent of burlap brings me back to that sukkah. It was one very long piece of burlap that we would stretch all around the three and three quarter walls of the sukkah and then fasten in place with curtain hooks from our friend in the curtain business. They were sharp on one end, dull on the other but somehow we always managed to prick our fingers when affixing the burlap walls to the poles. Those same hooks were then used to hang up holiday cards which were our decorations.
In the early years the two by fours on top of the metal sukkah were covered with schach cut from the trees behind our house. My father would go into the small woods dividing our house from the neighbor in back and cut enough leafy branches to cover the sukkah. This led to the other strong scent memory from Sukkot – calamine lotion. Because my father was, and still is, highly allergic to poison ivy and every year, every single year, spent the weeks after sukkot suffering with a terrible rash.
At some point we switched to a bamboo mat as our schach and though I distinctly remember feeling like we were cheating, it made for a more enjoyable sukkot for every member of the family.
My parents would have an open house on the Sunday of sukkot and all the family and the neighbors and the friends would come over. They would serve rum punch with frozen iced tea which I thought was the epitome of cool, and an orange ball of cheese covered in walnuts.
As a teenager, the sukkah that was most memorable to me was the one at my high school. On 78th street in New York City it was on a terrace on the fourth floor and had been built so that the corners of the terrace could be framed and bamboo mats could be rolled down as schach. It was a sukkah that held almost 300 people for school lunches and festive dinners during sukkot. I had never seen such a large sukkah and haven’t seen one that size since. It was a little sukkah oasis in the middle of an island and I have such fond memories of the singing and dancing that the terrible tuna sandwiches with potato chips didn’t even matter.
My first Baltimore sukkah was the communal one in Stevenson Village. The balcony of my apartment had an overhang so no place for a kosher sukkah. Luckily there was a communal sukkah in our courtyard. The week before the holiday I called the condo association president to ask if there was sign up or a way to reserve the sukkah so I could invite guests and fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. “Rabbi,” he said, “you don’t use the sukkah. It’s ornamental, like a Christmas tree.” So I still invited guests and we traipsed downstairs to make Kiddush and ha motzi in the ornamental sukkah and then back upstairs for meals.
From then it was a few more years until the first sukkah that I built for myself which was here in Baltimore. The first year I had it, it blew down in Hurricane Ivan and part of it needed to be replaced. I learned my lesson and after that, weighted down the poles with planters so it wouldn’t blow away. We haven’t slept in the sukkah because I am afraid of the wildlife that might come in. While I grew up with raccoons in the sukkah each night, I’m not so sure about deer, fox, and marmots as sleeping companions.
There were even two years when we had trouble taking the sukkah down. In 2009 when I came down with swine flu on Shemini Atzeret and the sukkah stayed up for two additional weeks. And then again a few years ago when we tried to take it down but found a frog on one of the poles holding on for dear life. He was too scared to move or too content to leave and no matter what we did, we couldn’t get him off. Ruben was helping me and we didn’t want to hurt him so we did what anyone else would do, we called Ron Millen to ask for advice. Ron said to shake the walls of the sukkah encourage him to evacuate, didn’t work. Then he said to try to brush him off with a branch of schach, finally success.
Each sukkah is dear to me and its physical structure is part of the memory of that place. Its quirks and features are part of the charm but the real memories of the holiday are not so much the burlap walls, screws and frogs but the people with whom we shared the days and nights of the holidays. The social and communal joys of inviting friends and family to share holiday meals in the sukkah. Our Ushpizin were sukkot guests who brought joy into our sukkot. We sat for hours under the stars or sunny skies, talking into the night, our laughter mingling with the sounds of the yard.