Sukkot in Florida: Hurricanes, Heat and Home Depot

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A lightning strike in Tampa, Florida. Not the best time of year to be sweltering in a sukkah.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sukkot holiday will begin in less than 24 hours. Yet here we sit in Florida on a Saturday night, wondering if we can still pull it together and get a sukkah up by nightfall on Sunday – if only because we owe it to our two preschool children. What will the holiday they love be without it? What will the little ones think if they get to enjoy visiting other sukkot, but their own parents couldn’t be bothered this year?

If our kids were a little older, they might understand our exhaustion and, hence, ambivalence about whether to push to get a rickety little shack erected by the start of the weeklong holiday. With half our stuff still in suitcases following our arrival in our new home just a week ago, the house only partially furnished, and our lack of time to recover from the string of holidays that seem to demand as much energy as our actual jobs, it would make sense if we declared ourselves p’tur (exempt) this year. Would it be heretical to say that it is some masochistic mix of duty and dedication that will nonetheless send us out early Sunday morning – when normal Americans are either in bed, reading the Sunday paper or getting ready for church – scrambling for raw materials with which to build a little lean-to to call our own? Lucky us, The Home Depot is around the corner and, unlike the Sunday hours I remember most businesses keeping when I last lived in America, they open at 7 A.M.

There are a few reasons why we’re so behind schedule this year.

Part of the problem was the warning we received from a like-minded young couple in Miami, whose experience led us to believe we probably wouldn’t be allowed to erect our own sukkah. When they tried to put up a sukkah last year, the Homeowners’ Association (HOA) that controls their community wouldn’t let them. In such communities, every bit of green space outside your door is controlled by the HOA. That saves you from having to ever worry about mowing the lawn and allows you to live amid lush, pristine landscaping. But you also lose the right to do what you please on the grass in your backyard. I soon learned that large swaths of Florida worked this way, and when we discovered that nearly all the nice homes and townhouses for rent in the areas we wanted to live in were also controlled by a HOA, we resigned ourselves to not being able to build a sukkah.

When we finally settled on a place to live, we took one with a screened-in back patio. But having once studied the talmudic laws of building a sukkah, I was under the impression that one couldn’t make a kosher sukkah inside a screened structure that’s up all year. So unless we wanted to make a symbolic sukkah that we knew wasn’t legit, that option was out.

Just a week ago, however, we learned otherwise. Apparently, one can build a kosher sukkah inside a screened-in patio – which is good news for the Jewish residents of Florida, where these structures to keep bugs and lizards at bay have become almost ubiquitous. The screen-and-aluminum structures, it seems, are not considered permanent because they can, and do, get blown over by the wind and crumpled like tin cans in a hurricane. Moreover, if the HOA still doesn’t like it they’ll serve you a warning to take it down within a week, by which point the holiday will be over anyway.

Quite honestly, nothing about America is particularly conducive to celebrating Sukkot. Not the timing of it with regard to the mainstream calendar – “Do you folks have a holiday again?” – and certainly not the weather. I’m sure for all those people in New York and Boston, it’s nice to have the holiday relatively early this year: I’ve heard many stories from New Englanders who as children went out to the sukkah to say a few prayers and then ran back inside, simply because it was too cold out – sometimes there was frost or even snow on the ground.

Life in Florida presents the opposite problem. The weather is so hot that doing the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah may become totally incompatible with happiness. “Just to let you know,” said a new acquaintance who invited us for a meal on Sukkot, “we don’t actually sit in it. We make kiddush and then go back inside, because it’s just too hot.”

A sukkah being built in Jerusalem. Don't even think of asking the Homeowners' Association about erecting one of these in Florida.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

My years in Israel taught me how well the Jewish calendar fits in with the local seasons and landscape. In Israel, Sukkot is the perfect time of year to sit outside and enjoy a meal – often the first drops of rain come just as the holiday ends. Here, if it’s not too hot, it’s raining cats and dogs. In short, Sukkot is hurricane season, and planning any outdoor activity is iffy. Even when it’s not raining and thundering, the sky flashes with lightning on most nights – after all, this is the lightning capital of the United States.

But it’s not just the construction and climate hurdles. Sukkot is simply a bit more challenging to celebrate in the United States – and elsewhere in the world – than it is in Israel. Perhaps for that reason, it gets short shrift compared to, say, Hanukkah. Sukkot is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals straight from the Bible, while Hanukkah, of course, came much later and doesn’t require anyone to take a day off work or school for “yom tov.” But while Hanukkah conveniently coincides with the Christmas gift-giving season, Sukkot is out of left field for mainstream America. Sure, a religious Christian would recognize the term “Feast of the Tabernacles,” but taking a whole string of days off in September? After you just took three for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur thing?

In part, Sukkot is about embracing our vulnerabilities. While in the desert, the Israelites had no idea where they were going to wind up next and whether they’d survive the journey. Dwelling in a temporary space is meant to return us to that mind-set – and to enjoy, trust and be in the moment nonetheless. As a family still trying to settle into a new home after six weeks of temporary living, I don’t need a sukkah this year to summon those feelings of change, uncertainty and impermanence. But perhaps I do need it to remind us of where we come from, even without knowing exactly where we’re going.

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