Come Sukkot, Many Israelis Build a Home Away From Home

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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The Brokental family's sukkah, Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod and Alex Levac
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

One evening last week, three kids from Mea She'arim wandered along a street that leads to the busiest ultra-Orthodox shopping district in Jerusalem. Just before they reached the shops, they heeded their parents' request, stopped and turned onto a side street. The elders had worried that the children's eyes might be dazzled by the tempting glitter of the brightly colored sukkah decorations.

The youths ambled along the side road. Then, apparently stirred by the holiday atmosphere, one of the boys asked another, "What sort of skhakh do you have?" "We have Kayness," replied his friend proudly, referring to a brand of reed mats.

Thin reed mats are frequently used as a roof for the sukkah, in place of the traditional tree branches used since time immemorial to cover the holiday dwelling. Their popularity derives from the fact that they can be used year after year and don't involve messy falling leaves.

Kayness is a brand name that's hard to miss. They are sold at sukkot fairs, feature prominently in newspaper advertisements and can be seen covering ultra-Orthodox sukkot from Metula to Eilat. And they are often brought up when ultra-Orthodox children compete for who has the most scrupulously religious sukkah.

Toward the bottom of the sloping road, little girls in strollers fixed their eyes on bright, made-in-China, decorations, each selling for NIS 10. Hanging from one stand were large paper fruits (NIS 20 for an orange pineapple, NIS 15 for a blood-red pomegranate ).

A string of red and green lights (NIS 25 ) that might have been taken right off a Christmas tree was being offered by another vendor.

For NIS 1,500 or more, some stores offered prefab sukkot comprised of iron poles and white cloth that can be assembled in under an hour. Strictly pious folk who insist on a sukkah made entirely from wood could find on the street wooden planks, sheets of fabric for covering the wood, with windows cut out of them, and curtains for the windows. Sukkah air-conditioning fans were also for sale.

Since the commandment is to sleep and eat in the sukkah for seven days, folding tables and beds were also for sale, along with flashlights and plastic cutlery. Nothing less than an entire ready-made home.

In fact, a sukkah was originally a temporary dwelling, a reminder of booths built in the desert and the shade they provided the people of Israel on their exodus from Egypt. But these days, it seems, the holiday is as much about shopping stalls as it is about living in booths.

During my childhood in Bnei Brak, we had a sukkah on our tiny balcony that was the size of a young person's bed. Each night of the holiday, the bed was stuffed into the sukkah, so that my father could sleep in it. Fortunately, only males are commanded to do that - women and girls are exempted from this obligation, and we were a family mostly of girls.

We strung white sheets around the porch for walls, and decorated the sheets with paper and children's drawings. We also had a few store-bought, glittering decorations. Despite its pint-sized dimensions, I loved going into the sukkah. You could see the stars twinkling in the sky, another sign of a kosher sukkah. Once, when rain fell on the booth, it brought an enticing scent of winter.

During Sukkot, we would wander from yard to yard, peaking at what the neighbors had built.

Nostalgic memories of the old Sukkot observances came to mind when I visited the Brokental family in Tel Aviv, by the sea. Leah Brokental is a dentist and her husband Mordechai is an architect who works for the Bnei Brak municipality.

They are observant, and they build a sukkah in accord with religious law. The sukkah, built on a balcony larger than what is typically found in Tel Aviv, is comprised of materials cited in the Tractate Sukkot of the Mishnah, and also benefits from the couple's personal, creative touch.

Mr. Brokental, as his wife calls him, built the sukkah's wooden frame a few years ago, relying on the features of the porch, and without the need of a power drill and screws.

From the outside, the sukkah has the distinguished look of a pagoda; decorations distinguish its interior. "We built the sukkah on our own, and that's what I love about it," says Leah. "I don't like store-bought decorations."

Teeth to trinkets

"I am a dentist," Leah says. "It's rare for a dentist not to have an itch to do something with her hands. Not a day goes by without my doing something with the sukkah. I collect all sorts of trinkets, and my grandchildren help me find items on their toys that can be used for decoration. Anything can be used to design something pretty for the sukkah, and the holiday provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate this creativity."

In the middle of the sukkah hang holiday-themed pictures. One was drawn by the couple's daughter Ra'ayah; another was drawn by Mordechai. On the sides of the booth, there are metallic representations of the holiday's four species.

The booth's ceiling is decorated with paper chains made from magazine cut-outs.

"It's a shame to buy ready-made chains," says Leah.

A mobile made out of mineral water bottles, and branches of a "protest" tree hang at the sukkah's entryway. These are real tree branches with paper leaves - "I want to restore to the trees whatever wood is taken from them," says Leah Brokental.

There are also mobiles of birds; their feathers were collected from partridges at Kibbutz Hafetz Haim. Sides of the booth are decorated with Simchat Torah flags used for that holiday celebration; Leah Brokental makes the flags each year for her grandchildren, to take to synagogue. There are some flags that are close to 20 years old; they were first used by the oldest grandchildren. Each of the flags, which are colorful, and feature tiny paper windows and curtains that can be flapped open, carries the name of a grandchild.

Recycling is the main idea of a sukkah built by the Tikochinsky family of Betar Ilit. The oldest daughter, Ruth, 21, has been working on the decorations for a week, together with her younger sister, Tehila, 16. When their brothers, Rafael (20 ) and Shmuel (18 ) returned from yeshiva this week, they joined the effort.

The four children sit together, tossing around ideas, arranging nylon, paper and dry pasta. They have already arranged items symbolizing water conservation and recycling. Ruth points out that water and rainfall constitute a leading motif for the holiday.