The Festival of Temporary Dwellings

This is the time of year when Jews around the world erect sukkot, temporary dwellings or huts, in their back yards, patios, and rooftops. You see them on balconies in Jerusalem and Brooklyn and tucked between tall buildings in Manhattan.

We built ours on our deck.

The holiday of Sukkot commemorates the Israelites lived in both during their 40 years of wandering in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, as recounted in the Bible, and their temporary dwellings in the fields during harvest times in ancient Israel. It begins this year, 2012, at sunset on the evening of Sunday, September 30, and ends in the evening of Sunday, October 7.

You don’t just build a sukkah (and you don’t have to build yours from scratch; there are lots of easy-to-assemble kits) you get to have a lot of fun decorating it. Some people use only natural decorations: dried fruit, gourds, branches with berries. My husband, Rav Julius Rabinowitz, and I like to go all out with stuff we find on vacation: paper-maché fruit from Mexico, harvest-themed tiles from a market in Israel, fruit stickers from the Woo-Mart in Beijing. And with seasonal artificial fruit, leaves and flowers from places like Michael’s Art Supplies. On the walls are special laminated posters from Judaica shops that explain the rituals and prayers .

A key aspect of Sukkot is welcoming of ushpizin, guests, in remembrance of the forefathers and foremothers of Biblical times. Every year, we welcome guests—from ages four to ???— with a buffet of foods like Sephardic meatballs in honey- and cinnamon-scented tomato sauce, pasta with chickpeas, Israeli chopped salad, baba ganoush, olives, fruit, wine, and various munchies. Guests often bring cookies, cakes, and more fruit.

We enjoy sitting in it all week—depending on the weather, bundled in sweaters. It’s a serene, special place to read and enjoy a meal or snack.

Here are a few profound words on the holiday by Rav Shoshana Mitrani Knapp, a fellow member of Romemu, my Manhattan synagogue: “Sukkot is the festival of temporary dwellings, when we are asked to remove ourselves from the comfort and protection of our homes and take up residency in an impermanent structure. The sukkah is a metaphor for the illusions we build around ourselves. The concrete foundations and solid walls that usually protect us are not real. We come to understand that loss, sadness, and disappointment can easily penetrate our homes and lives. And, yet all is not lost. Sukkot is truly a time of happiness. When we dine in the sukkah, the stars and moon are our chandeliers. We gaze up into the eternity of the cosmos and realize we are living in God’s world. Safety is not found behind the walls of the structures of our homes and lives, but in the sheltering presence of God.”

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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