It’s a crisp October day with a poetic bright blue sky. It would seem to be the perfect autumn, but we’re missing something says my wife Sharon (uh oh). “We don’t have our own sukkah.”
I point out that we live on the 12th floor of a 14-story apartment building, not the ideal location for a desert hut.
That doesn’t slow down Sharon who says her friend is moving and wants to give away her sukkah. “We can put it on the roof,” she says.
Two flights up between two penthouse apartments, next to a parapet overlooking the street and next to a utility shaft is an unused space about half the size of a handball court. “Perfect,” says Sharon.
“Not quite,” I say. “A stiff wind will blow the whole thing into the street below.” A minor concern, says Sharon, who is confident the structure can be affixed to pipes and other stationary protrusions on the roof.
We must first get permission from the building manager. To my dismay, he approves.
Sharon’s enthusiasm is stoked by Yossi, our teenage son who has just returned from a year of yeshiva study in Israel. Building one’s own sukkah would be the ultimate mitzvah.
And so it begins. The sukkah is a seven-foot cube with a frame of iron pipes connected with the use of an Allen wrench. It’s draped by a blue and beige canvas wall inscribed with Hebrew commentary on the interior. The “schach” is a bundle of bamboo that must be laid over a bridge of wooden two-by-fours without touching the metal pipes. And this schach must be tied down so when the inevitable gale comes the cars in the street below won’t have bamboo poles piercing their windshields. It’s both an engineering and rabbinic challenge.
We consult a rabbi who lives in the building. He comes up to the roof for an inspection. He admires our initiative, but “no” he points out several places where the schach comes in contact with the frame and thus the sukkah is not kosher. We must reposition and re-tie the bamboo.
A little later the rabbi’s 12-year-od son comes up to the roof eager to help. He ties one knot and departs, having qualified, he says, for a sukkah–building mitzvah.
The knot tying is perhaps the project’s most demanding function. The frame must be anchored by rope to various grates, pipes and other stationary objects on the roof, and the bamboo must be tied down, all this before modern-day Velcro straps. I could envision a windstorm that would pick up the whole sukkah and sail it away like a Jules Verne balloon.
One of our helpers was Sharon’s nephew, Uri, fresh from the Boston Museum School where one of his projects was an avant-garde sculpture pulled together with sophisticated sailor’s knots, which he used also on the sukkah in defiance of the strongest gale. The same knots were used in a recent walk-through sculpture, called the Big Bamboo, on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The sukkah needed a light fixture. We fashioned a lamp with a bulb and a shade, tied it under the bamboo, then connected a series of extension cords, running them some 60 feet to an outlet inside the building. Then we said a bracha to protect against electrical malfunction.
The sukkah appeared to be finished, but Sharon had other ideas, the decorations. Childhood artwork is traditional, but instead of the early creations of our now grown sons, Sharon pinned up strings of seashells from Disney World’s Polynesian resort, pieces of Navaho cloth from Arizona, a huge sombrero and a Mexican serape, all-subtle blending with the Judaica on the canvass.
The sukkah was tiny. It couldn’t seat more than six at the little table we installed. I had to admit, though, there was a certain charm about this brave little shack plumped on the penthouse roof.
We were ready to inaugurate the sukkah with a meal – gefilte fish, roast chicken, rice, peas, cranberry sauce, salad, challah, wine and a dessert of fresh fruit, honey cake and macaroons. We carried everything up two flights of stairs in two huge L.L.Bean canvass tote bags. The table was set. The food was spread out. Then the rain came—a downpour that would have flooded the desert wanderers from
their huts and left us scrambling to repack the food. After a hasty and moist bracha, we retreated inside the apartment.
We redid the sukkah-in-the-sky almost every year. Sometimes the weather cooperated, though one year we were rained out every meal. Another year we had to bundle in our winter coats. The non-Jewish penthouse neighbors accepted the sukkah as part of the mysterious eight-day ritual, but it was an object of great curiosity to some others who wandered to the roof. One morning we went upstairs for a sukkah breakfast and found a young man from another apartment inside the sukkah with a dreamy look on his face smoking. He said he thought it was a Buddhist prayer hut.
One family in our building has a large sukkah in the courtyard, and for many years another had a sukkah on the area covering the building’s lobby. One had to climb out a window to get to it. The old men who used it welcomed the chance to use ours, which was accessible by elevator.
We have visited many sukkahs — the comfortable ones in the backyards of suburban homes, sukkahs outside kosher restaurants, balcony sukkahs jutting from windows of apartments in Israel’s Mea Shearim. Our son, Yossi, now in his own home with a wife and four children, has a sukkah on a patio conveniently outside the kitchen. But our rooftop sukkah, which may have begun as “Sharon’s Folly,” has become something special, set in that high place amidst nature’s raw elements, yet providing a feeling of comfort despite its vulnerability.
It’s a true spiritual experience.