A Trip Through Israel's Sukkah Supply District

In southern Tel Aviv, the sukkah building materials trade flourishes.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Inside a store specializing in sukkah building materials, September 21, 2015.
Inside a store specializing in sukkah building materials, September 21, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel’s sukkah supply center doesn’t advertise itself at such, and an unaware passerby could easily miss it. But this one small block in Tel Aviv happens to boast the largest concentration of shops in the country specializing in materials for constructing the temporary outdoor huts for which the next big holiday on the Jewish calendar is known.

With the week-long festival of Sukkot just a few days away, this is their busiest time of year.

“Business is booming, and I expect it will boom even more as we get closer to the holiday,” says Tzachy Berliner, the third generation of a 70-year-old family-run sukkah supply establishment. “After all, Israelis are notorious for waiting until the last minute to buy their stuff.” During the holiday of Sukkot, Jews traditionally have their meals in the outdoor dwellings they’ve constructed.

The half a dozen or so sukkah supply shops on this block keep themselves busy most of the year selling merchandise like sunshades, awnings and fence coverings — the sort of things that protect people from the scorching Mediterranean sun and nosy neighbors. But nothing compares to this week’s rush. “After Sukkot, things will be dead,” declares Ovadia Cohen, another shop owner on the block, as he busily cuts away at a piece of fabric.

Tel Aviv may be the capital of Startup Nation, but this dingy section of the city is as far removed as it gets from the slick world of high-tech. There are no fancy storefronts or inviting window displays, just a bunch of old cluttered workshops, their wares overflowing onto the sidewalks.

Everything a Jew might need to construct a sukkah with his or her own hands can be found on this one small stretch of Salame Street in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin: the poles for the base and corners; the bamboo sticks that provide the thatching for the roof; and most importantly, the material for the walls. Rolls upon rolls of canvas, cotton and special water-resistant material, all designed to serve as sukkah exteriors, line the walls of these shops. Some are solid-colored, others are patterned, but by far the most popular, as the various shop owners testify, are those decorated with Jewish symbols and motifs.

Each establishment also employs at least one tailor whose job is to cut the fabric according to the customer's instructions and make holes in the sides where clasps can be inserted and attached to the poles. To be sure, it’s not as convenient as buying a ready-made Sukkah kit, many of which are available online these days, but it’s a lot cheaper, and there’s definitely something more authentic about it.

Another advantage, as Berliner points out, is that the sukkahs can be custom made. “We can cut the fabric to any length and any width, so you can have a sukkah any size that you want. None of the one-size-fits-all business,” he notes.

A worker at a sukkah supply store stands on a roll of fabric, September 21, 2015.Credit: David Bachar

Two doors down from the Berliners is Assaf Mantzour’s sukkah supply shop. Having opened only 22 years ago, he easily qualifies as the new guy on the block. As Mantzour sits in the back of the cramped shop taking orders over the phone, he has two tailors stationed outside on the sidewalk, filling customized orders. One of them, a young migrant from Eritrea who speaks fluent Hebrew, is haggling over prices with potential buyers, while his boss deals with the more serious customers inside the shop.

“It’s kosher?” a large-bodied Orthodox man asks Mantzour, as he fingers some canvas on a roll.

“Mehadrin,” responds Mantzour, using the term for the most stringent standards of kosher supervision. He then turns to another customer in the shop and winks.

The sukkah supply business has been going downhill in recent years, laments Mantzour, with fewer and fewer Israelis observing the tradition. “I see it in my own neighborhood,” he says. “It used to be that everybody had a sukkah on their porch. Then a few years ago, I noticed that there were only five sukkahs, and last year, there were only two.”

It may have to do with his particular wares or the prices he charges, because his competitors on either side seem to be making a killing. Baruch, who owns the shop on his left, won’t even pause to answer some questions. “I’m too busy,” he says, peeking up from his sewing machine to shoo a reporter away.

The Berliner family on the other side can’t complain either. “We get people from all over the country coming here — religious and not religious,” says the grandson. “Everyone wants a sukkah. It’s become a sort of trend.”

His grandfather Shmuel sits at a desk in the back of the shop surrounded by ancient piles of handwritten order forms and receipts. “These are my archives,” he boasts.

Sukkah building may be an age-old tradition, but that doesn’t mean it requires age-old bookkeeping methods. The younger Berliner has finally managed to convince his grandpa of that. “He was a bit resistant at first, but I’ve finally gotten him to agree to bring a computer into the shop,” says the grandson proudly.

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