My girl friend Amber invited me to Sukkot today. Do you know what Sukkot is? I didn’t. But now I do, or at least I know as much as a group of non-religious Jews can teach me. I guess I’m making my rounds of all the Jewish holidays. Surprising considering that the small Kentucky town where I grew up had no Temple and all of one Jew living there that I knew of. And she moved…I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that she couldn’t find any eligible Jewish men to marry.
So Sukkot is about a week after Yum Kippur. (Officially it’s the fifteenth day of some Jewish month. But they measure time by the lunar calendar so I’m not really sure how that converts to Gentile calendar keeping.) Sukkot is about celebrating the harvest. It commemorates when the Jews following Moses came out of their forty-year exile in the desert. (Your and my parents sent us to Sunday School, so we know all about Moses and the Jews in the desert.)
Amber is from Queens, so we were going to her parents’ house for the celebration. As we rode the E train out to Fresh Meadows, she was explaining the holiday to me. Apparently, for Sukkot you build a sukkah. (I know, the words sound similar. All afternoon I kept calling the holiday the hut. I hope it wasn’t insulting. I was one of only two Gentiles there. But then they really shouldn’t make the words so similar.) So they make this hut and then if you’re really religious you’re supposed to sleep out under it every night and say prayers in it each day and eat in it, etc. Like camping, only with a hut and not a tent. And the hut doesn’t have a roof, that’s an important thing. So I guess you have to hope for good weather.
When I got to Amber’s parents’ house, I had no clue what to expect in this hut. But I had certain kind of image in mind. Her parents had built it the night before and with all the talk of ancient Jews coming out of the desert and open roofs, I was imagining a pretty rustic sort of hut. Maybe something that the first or second pig would have made in the Three Little Pigs fairy tale. Or something harkening back to Africa where the Jews had originally escaped from Egypt. I was expecting something kind of run-down. A DIY project done more for the tradition than for aesthetics or utility.
I was wrong.
Some enterprising Jew must have realized at some point how popular this Sukkot holiday is. And how difficult it is to find natural materials to build a hut in suburbia. Because when I walked into the backyard for the party, there sat a perfectly nice looking hut. I wouldn’t even describe it as a hut.
I thought huts had to be round. This one was square and made up of tent poles that all connected to form an easy frame for someone to wrap a pre-fitted tarp around. I think I saw Velcro to make sure all the tarp walls stuck together. It looked like some store-bought kit that you’d find while surfing late night infomercials. And it turned out that that was the case. Amber’s parents had bought the kit years before.
So the hut came pre-fabricated, but the actual decorations inside, those were up to the owner. And boy did Amber’s parents have fun with them. They had wrapped Star of David streamers around the tent walls and paper chains that Amber and her sister had made when they were like ten. They also had a ton of fake foliage, leaves sticking out of every corner of the hut and down through the wooden slats which lay spaced across the hut’s top. From these slats hung the most ridiculous of the decorations – bunches of plastic grapes, though at first glance they looked real. Whoever had made them did an excellent job with the finish so that the grapes glistened naturally in the light. They were very Dionysian, these bunches of grapes. I guess it went along with the harvest theme, though I’m not sure where the ancient Jews would have gotten grapes after wandering in the desert for forty years. (Amber took a really cute picture of me reaching up, open-mouthed, to eat the grapes. Too bad you don’t follow me on Instagram or you would have seen it. Later, other people tried to copy my pose, but I was the only one tall enough to reach them.)
I wasn’t the only one of Amber’s friends who she invited to the party. And as Amber is a preternaturally late person, when we arrived, some of her home friends were already there. I had met her two gay friends Pete and David (they’re not together) before. But I didn’t know the rest of her friends. Her aunt and grandparents and a few other family friends were there, too. After I’d been introduced around, Amber and I made for the hut where all the food was. It was a celebration, after all.