When the air cooled and the leaves turned, we moved into our sukkah. It was a tiny canvas hut, six feet square with nothing to recommend it. No window, no running water, no heater, no proper door to keep the bugs away. It was a terrible inconvenience really, running back and forth to the kitchen for each forgotten thing, dishes and silverware clanking, hot foods cooling in the air before we could eat them. If it had rained the night before, the drops still fell on our heads from the bamboo branches, the s'chach, into our bowls, our plates, our food.
But we were happy there.
In that temporary shack we felt our permanence. We felt the thousands of years that stretched behind us, the history that made us favored, beloved. We felt our connection to God who is both ancient and timeless. In the sukkah we remembered who we had been to Him. We remembered that He said about us, “I recall the kindness of your youth, when you followed me through a desert.” We reminded ourselves who we would someday be again.
In the sukkah we removed ourselves from our pretensions and our requirements and the luxuries of the world we knew inside. When all the trappings that we thought we needed were gone, we realized we didn’t miss them. In the sukkah, stripped down to the barest necessities we realized we were all the same. Jews sitting together, remembering together.
In the sukkah we knew what was true.
Like the holy Temple, there was room for everyone in our sukkah. It seemed the walls expanded to fit, family and neighbors and friends. In puffy parkas, we squeezed next to each other and laughed as elbows bumped elbows. “Come in, come in!” we called, and they did and they stayed too.
My grandfather’s shoulder squeezed up so close against mine, I could feel his breath rumbling through his chest. And I thought of all the temporary huts he had lodged in, as he struggled to survive through Europe and Israel and America. I thought of them all and I concluded that ours was the best.
The decorations were primitive, children’s drawings covered in plastic and portraits of old rabbis encircling the walls. Through the branches of the s'chach were hung shofars and honey jars, and dangling jeweled apples. We had done what we could do to beautify it, but at the end of it all, it was still a hut. And that was okay. That was as it should be. In the hut, there was no talk of business or obligations; there was only laughter and song and sometimes the echoes of melodies from other sukkahs in the neighboring yards. “You still out there?” our neighbors would call out jovially. “Still here!” we’d answer.
In the sukkah, we Jews knew our place. We knew that we were different and special and chosen. That the world did not own us in any way and we would do what we had always done regardless of the weather, or the lateness of the hour, or the skeptical stares of the onlookers. In the sukkah we knew what was true. We knew the rightness of our loyalty to His promise. The sweetness of our celebration, our challah and honey and our soup and song. We knew the joy of children staying up way past their bedtimes to gaze dreamy eyed at the twinkling stars through the rickety s'chach in that tiny, canvas abode. We knew that the rabbis on the walls were smiling down at us and that God Himself was smiling down at us as we waited for Him to bring us home.
The night grew late. In the distance thunder rumbled and I shivered a little. “You’re not afraid of a little rain, are you?” my zaidy asked. "We’ve been through so much worse!”
He laughed a little. “Nu,” he said and blew on his tea. Then he leaned toward me, intent, “Listen good, mamaleh,” he said. “A sukkah is like galus, like this long, long exile. Not so comfortable maybe, but we sit. We sit and we wait and we show Him our waiting. Soon, soon He’ll bring us inside.”
Everything changes but it all stays the same.
I nodded somberly at my zaidy. Soon we’ll go inside, he said, and I believed him. In the inky blackness my eyelids grew heavier, the portraits on the walls blurred, the singing ebbed and flowed around me. I closed my eyes for just a moment… and the years passed.
Tonight, in our own canvas sukkah, I look at my son, gazing wide-eyed at the rabbis on the walls, his metal chair wobbling on the uneven pavement of the driveway. The s'chach is dripping rainwater on our table and we are squeezed so tightly together. Everything changes but it all stays the same, I think. We Jews are the same, the sukkah is the same, this long exile is still the same. I hear my zaidy’s voice inside my head, “A sukkah is like galus,” he whispers. “Not so comfortable, maybe, but we sit. Soon, soon He’ll bring us inside.”
And I nod somberly because after all these years of waiting, I still believe him.