Raising DIY sukkahs and consciousness

By Edmon J. Rodman | JTA

Gather your boughs from the brook or even your back yard, and your hammers from Home Depot, and get ready for a DIY Sukkot this year.

DIY, as in do-it-yourself.

As sukkah building begins, remember that for many Jewish households, long before DIY became a trend, building the sukkah was the original do-it-yourself project.

The price of lumber and hardware is up. Schach, the greenery for the roof, is harder to come by in the drought-ridden Western states. It’s cold outside, and the cable doesn’t quite reach.

Still, with just a little lumber or plastic pipe, hammer and saw, we can create a new Jewish environment that reflects so much more than our engineering approach.

Sukkah building calls for our entire attention — our feelings about space, comfort and safety, continuity. The rising structure presents us with a kind of shaky existentialism, asking us: Are we what we build?

Each do-it-yourself sukkah takes on a bit of our personality, weaving the times of our lives into its space.

Before having kids, our sukkah, wrapped with ‘60s bedspreads, was what I would call “tie-dye Bedouin.”

Another Sukkot, an election year, I made one of the sukkah walls out of white Tyvek, which when backlit made an excellent shadow puppet screen for a very flat presidential debate between puppets I made for Reagan and Carter.

Now, living in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, our sukkah has taken on more of an Asian fusion look, with bamboo walls and mats on the floor.

Building a sukkah allows your mind to wander to another time and place. Leviticus 23 sets the scene: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths. In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….”

Creating a temporary structure reminds us of an earlier time’s economic flux when as a people we were wanderers, between jobs in the Sinai.

So celebrate the temporary. With a little invention-inspired intention, you can get your booth ready.

For those who need a little engineering assist to get started, a virtual cornucopia of sukkah kits is available online. Prices range, without shipping, from $200 to $700 and up for a basic model depending on size, materials and design. Or you can totally DIY and build one from scratch.

For a guide, there’s sort of a Holy Building Code of sukkah construction. Generally the requirements call for at least three walls able to withstand an average wind made of any material and a roof made of plant matter, no longer attached to its source, which at midday provides more shade than it lets in sunlight.

Numerous Web sites under “build a sukkah” will take you through the process step by step.

The My Jewish Learning site (www.myjewishlearning.com) features a simple design that uses cement blocks to stabilize the structure. For the visual thinkers, who simply need a model to see, a video shot in Israel (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nbC9D3yrBY) shows a variety of sukkah designs, materials, sizes and sites.

Others are DIYing into sukkahs as well.

Christians refer to Sukkot as the Feast of Tabernacles, and numerous articles and Web sites show an increased interest in “celebrating the biblical feast” by building a backyard tabernacle.

Our liturgy presents us with the concept of a “sukkat shlomecha,” a “sukkah of your peace,” which may not be immediately apparent as you struggle with poles, support brackets and sharp-edged schach. Important note: Gloves and goggles make the work more peaceful.

I have used the same sukkah for 12 years and each edition finds its frame splintered in new places, needing a bit of reinforcing here and a new support there. Duct tape increasingly plays a role.

On construction day, which should follow soon after Yom Kippur, enlist your family and friends for help putting up your palace in pine.

Each year, from the moment I call on my sons for help, the project appropriately becomes the shakiest of ventures: a do-it-together project. As the rising structure leans first to and then fro, it becomes clear that sukkah building is a job for at least two, and that cooperation is key — without it, the roof does fall.

Stares, glares and general indifference aside, once the sukkah is up, I have noticed that even as young men, my sons still like it when one of their childhood Sukkot art projects shows up on the sukkah’s walls.

All this measuring, cutting and hammering also reminds us that we are builders, and recalls an earlier time when the tasks of creating from scratch were on our collective minds.

In 1930s Palestine, a popular chalutz folk song by Menashe Ravinah had the line “Anu banu artza livnot u’lehibanot ba” — “We have come to this land to build it and to be built by it.”

This year as you lay out the materials and tools, as you define the space that will define your season of joy, think about this: As you build the sukkah, is the sukkah building you?

Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.

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