As a 10-year old child, new to Teaneck and straight out of Washington Heights with its Orthodox community of refugees, I felt very estranged coming to a town where there was not yet a kosher butcher or an Orthodox shul. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur passed, and then came one of my favorite holidays, Sukkot. Child that I was, I had always created my own rules and prayers, confounding my parents not just in being so frum but in my little deviations on the themes of holidays and such. I improvised, added, and subtracted, being a child of imagination and not just religious belief.
The first Sukkot came, and I decided it was my utmost obligation to build a sukkah on our patio. Never before had I had such a wonderful place to do it. I dragged out many large chairs and my mother’s good white sheets to hang on the chairbacks for walls, then broke off branches from any green thing growing in our new backyard. My accomplice was my 6-year-old brother Michael, who followed my orders without question. We formed some structure or another, not really high enough for us to stand in, but just right to sit in, flimsy and unstable at best, with branches scratching on our heads. All of our artwork went on the sheets, some directly with crayons and fingerpaints, and the refrigerator was raided for anything that looked like a fruit or a gourd. I felt very happy, proud, and excited about our sukkah, but my parents had not yet returned from work.
My grandmother obligingly let us take her lulav and etrog into this little space and do what we thought were prayers, then handed us our food to eat on the floor, despite her better judgment. My parents came home to see us eating on the floor of the patio surrounded by dirty sheets and chairs and drawings of who knows what on all the white linens. Truly, I cannot imagine what they thought, but they let us be. We were more or less having fun. With reluctance they left us to our devices.
Later that evening, I thought that sleeping in our sukkah would bring us one step closer to God, and since the night was abnormally warm, we shlepped out our blankets and pillows and settled down for the night. My parents, of course, were worried that something would happen to us, but I was determined that this was the right thing to do. I could not be moved or persuaded. The back door was left ajar and, allegedly, we slept. The lights in the house were dimmed for the night and, minutes later, my brother, sniveling and scared, crawled out noisily and into the house for the night, to sleep in his own bed. Stubborn thing that I was, I stayed for as long as I could, several hours at least, being thoroughly bitten up by the mosquitoes of New Jersey, yet not wanting to yield. The night was dark and I was scared too, apart from miserably itching and crawling with ants from the food we left on the floor. One sheet blew off in the wind, then another, and finally I had good enough reason to come in and go to bed. There was no more sukkah.
I tiptoed past my parents’ room hoping they wouldn’t see or hear me in my shame, and stealthily closed the back door on the first night of Sukkot in our new house, embarrassed and frustrated, but oh so happy to climb into my own clean bed for the night.