Ever since my children were old enough to go to Hebrew School, each year they asked me if we could build a sukkah for Sukkot. As you know, a sukkah is a small dwelling place --- a sort of glorified hut --- that Jews construct and inhabit during Sukkot instead of their comfortable homes with heat, indoor plumbing, and television sets showing the World Series.
All things considered, however, being pushed for a sukkah beats having your kids constantly nagging you about getting a dog. A sukkah doesn't have to be walked at 6:30 in the morning in February and very rarely messes on the hardwood flooring. And since I didn't grow up having a sukkah but did have a dog, the idea frankly kind of appealed to me as well.
I am mechanically inclined – inclined to hire a mechanic that is.
There was only problem. I am the type of Jewish person who happens to be very mechanically inclined; that is, whenever any situation requiring fixing or repairing things arises, I am very inclined to hire a mechanic. It's the same with constructing things. I have been known to give up in disgust after attempting to put together a toy for children under three from McDonald's.
So, I stonewalled.
"Guys, if we have our own sukkah, you won't enjoy the neighbor's sukkah as much."
This was true. Our neighbor, a Jewish man who owned an elaborate set of power tools, built a tree house for his children, and I believe spent Sundays instructing Amish people in the art of barn raising, annually built a killer sukkah. Large, sturdy, bedecked in gourds, pumpkins, and sumptuous decorations acquired by the family over years, the neighbors' sukkah lacked only water spewing fountains to make it a secondary tourist attraction in the Philadelphia area.
Then our neighbor moved away to a house with larger property where he could presumably build an even more grandiose sukkah, and was replaced with a nice gentile family which spent appreciably less time each fall building a sukkah than turning their house each winter into Rockefeller Center.
"Look, you guys," I said to the kids pressing harder for excuses, "we have kind of a smallish house and sometimes the roof leaks. That's just as good!"
Finally, I relented. This year my son Brandon and I would build a sukkah. The only problem now was that Brandon is every bit as handyman challenged as I am. This is a young guy who looks about for a plug whenever he is required to use a screwdriver and operates a pair of pliers by blowing on them. So we sought out some kind of more or less ready-made sukkah.
Knowing little, we checked the web. Although I had my heart set on a sukkah that said "just add water," all of them said "some assembly required." For Brandon and me, that usually means an assembly we both ought not to attend. Even more compelling, all said "some dollars required, “in most cases multiple hundreds.
Our new neighbor, also quite handy, came to our rescue with multiple plywood boards and cinder blocks. The boards were somewhat daunting and featured wood knots the size of supernovas, but at least I was familiar with cinder blocks, their having served as more or less the sole decoration for my dorm room the first year of college. The some assembly required did include its share of modestly banged fingers, scraped shins, and "where's the plug for the hammer, Dad?" but we wedged the plywood between the cinder blocks, laid on the wooden top, and covered the whole thing with sheets that had long ago seen their better days.
Gradually a hovel-like structure arose. We enlisted neighborhood children to make decorations, most of whom proved to be as artistically challenged as we were mechanically so. We added gourds and pumpkins, blessed the sukkah, and though some of our Jewish neighbors said it looked great "but when was it going to be finished?" we were ready to spend happy times there well in advance of the holiday.
That is, well in advance of the rainy holiday. That year it rained the first five days of Sukkot, during which time we had to content ourselves with spending happy times admiring our handiwork getting drenched. By the time it dried out at the end of the holiday, we did enjoy a meal or two there.
Sitting in the sukkah, gazing skyward, and chowing down on the traditional corned beef specials, french fries, and Coca-Cola from Murray's Delicatessen, I think we both felt a little bit proud of our achievement and maybe a little bit closer to our Jewish roots.
Since then circumstances have intervened, and that was the last sukkah Brandon and I ever built.
I'm still using the same excuse. "Y'know Bran," I say, "we live in kind of a smallish house and sometimes the roof leaks. That just as ..."
No, it isn't just as good.
We found that out the year Brandon and I built a sukkah.