Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Luxury of a Sukkah

We think of using a sukkah as the ultimate of getting back to basics--a few flimsy walls, a roof open to the sky, no heat, no air conditioning and just enough lighting so you're not sitting totally in the dark. We certainly don't go around thinking of our sukkahs as the ultimate in luxuries. Too bad that we don't, because we really should.

Do you really think that all those people living in der heim in Europe each had a sukkah for their own private use? Many, many of Klal living in Europe were the poster children for poor and living in poverty. Their regular dwellings were barely a step up from a sukkah, if that. In the small towns and rural areas there was land available to put up a sukkah by your home, if you had that home, that land, and the money. Many of Klal lived in the big cities, in apartment-type dwellings. They had no space where to build a sukkah of their own. Shuls would put up a sukkah for the use of their mispallelim. In many cases it was only kiddush that was made in the sukkah--there was no room to accomodate everyone for eating a full meal. In some cases only the men would eat in that shul sukkah. My grandparents had a hotel and restaurant in Europe in one of the smaller towns. They had a sukkah, and many of those in town who didn't have where to put one or couldn't afford one came to their sukkah to make kiddush.

Now fast forward to America. Where did the majority of immigrants live when they came here? In the crowded urban areas, in apartments--think the lower east side. Sukkahs? Where?! Again, if you were fortunate, your shul had a sukkah. And those sukkahs were not the gigantic edifices you see in some parts of Brooklyn today. Even in the areas where houses were mixed in with apartment buildings, there wasn't much land available to those houses for sukkah building. Some of those sukkahs were built on the small porches and balconies that fronted the homes--just enough room--maybe--for everyone to squeeze in to hear kiddush and then dad and the boys ate their meal in the sukkah, if there was room even for them.

I remember my really early years in Portland, living in apartments and no, we didn't have a sukkah because there was nowhere to put one. Kiddush was in the shul sukkah. When my aunt and uncle bought a small house it had a yard and suddenly we were all eating every meal in the sukkah. When we bought our own house then we, too, had room for a sukkah, one that my dad built from scratch each year--wooden walls and the schach was tree branches that we cut in the woods bordering our area. Many of our decorations were real flowers we had picked from the garden and full corn stalks we got from a farmer not too far away.

My in laws rented part of a two-family house in Boro Park. Their landlord was frum and put up a sukkah that basically filled the space of the tiny parcel of back yard. Only the men in the family ate in the sukkah because there simply was not enough room to accommodate two full families. I spent exactly one sukkos with my in laws precisely because of the sukkah situation. My parents, by then in Far Rockaway, had a bigger back yard and space for a sukkah that we could all sit and eat in--no segregation of the sexes necessary.

Even today there are plenty of people who don't live where they can have their own sukkah. When my cousin, living on the West Side of Manhattan in an apartment, needed a sukkah it was to the shul they went. However, if you wanted to eat a meal in that sukkah, you had to pay for it--the shul caterer provided any food, and no, it wasn't cheap. Where do you suppose all those living in Manhattan now go if they want to eat in a sukkah? Or those who live in the apartment towers in Brooklyn and Queens?

So yes, a sukkah is a luxury. And if your sukkah can accommodate your entire family and then invited company it's a higher level of luxury. We don't tend to think of sitting huddled in the sukkah, wrapped in warm jackets against the cold of an autumn night as luxurious living. Those who don't have this luxury would disagree with you.

So have a wonderful, joyous yom tov. Those of you in your own sukkahs give thanks for the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah. And it wouldn't hurt either if you thought of those who can't have their own sukkah and offered an invitation to use yours.


JS said...

Good post.

Just heard my wife's grandfather recounting how things were in "der heim." He came to America when he was a child, but was told how things were by his older siblings and parents. Pretty much exactly how you described it. Very few people had their own sukkah. The sukkahs that people had were tiny - not tiny by American standards. I mean maybe 3 people could sit in it around a small table. People would hear kiddush at shul in the sukkah or stand quickly in a sukkah at home to hear it. And, of course, only men ate in the sukkah.

I think the larger point is that we are surrounded by luxuries which people simply don't appreciate. A lulav and etrog set for $36 (and of course you can get it cheaper) is a luxury. Most in Europe didn't have one, they had to engage in complicated ownership transfers and borrowings to fulfill the mitzvah. And the largest luxury people refuse to acknowledge is a luxury: private school aka yeshiva.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine what a luluv and esrog would have cost in today's dollars during the middle ages and before when, presumably to get an etrog in poland, for example, traders would have had to travel for months by foot and horse and boat to get to southern italy or the mediterranean and back. How was in done back then?

JS said...


I can't imagine the agony of making that months-long trip by boat, horse, wagon, and by foot...only to accidentally bump the etrog and have its pitom fall off!!!

ProfK said...


See the newest posting for some info about esrogim--answers some of your question.

Yes, posting on erev yom tov--anything not to have to wash the same mixing bowls and pots yet once again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow-up post. Very interesting. It sounds like there must have been times when an etrog was not to be had in the non-mediterranean european countries. So, enjoy yours, and your sukkah.

Tuvi said...

This post also ties in to your post on children going home to their parents for yom tov. When those kids are living where they can't have their own sukkah they tend to head to their parents to use the parents' sukkah. When they get to a point where they can have their own sukkah they tend to stay home.

AbbasRantings said...

on the lower east side 100 years ago some people put their sukkah on the fire escape. this practice was opposed by r. yosef fried (in a teshuvah in the first volume of american teshuvot) because it violated halacha, civil law and "midat ha-adam"

as far as the etrog, i recall reading an oral interview in a volume about a small-town jewish community (maybe hazelton or johnstown?) in which someon recalled that as a kid it was a big honor to be chosen to carry the arba minim from home to home for everyone to use becaus there was only one set in town.