Sunday, October 16, 2011

Building my own Sukkah from stuff in the woods

Last week I spent three days building my sukkah, the little booth that Jews erect for the Festival Sukkot.   The sukkah has many meanings.  First of all, it reminds us of the days of wandering in the wilderness with Moses.  It also teaches us that this life is a journey through a world that is not permanent.  And it is a celebration of the harvest, the time when we have gathered in our crops and can enjoy the fruits of our labors.

White pine for shchach --
courtesy of road maintenance!
The basic requirements for building a sukkah are simple:  It must have 3 walls, and the shchach (roof covering) must be made of natural materials cut from the earth.  The sides can be made from anything handy, including the wall of an existing building if you build it against the house or other structure.  However, the location must be open to the sky, not under a tree or other obstruction.

Nowadays you can buy prefab sukkah kits made out of plywood or various other materials in a variety of designs.  However, these are rather pricey and way beyond our tight budget.  Besides, my wife and I are getting a bit old to be hauling heavy plywood panels in and out of the shed each year.  So, I called upon my old Boy Scout skills to lash together a framework of saplings that I cut from the woods on my own land. 

I use nylon twine instead of the old sisal kind, because, although it is harder to tie permanent knots with, it does not rot or stretch.  (Through trial and error, I found that tying it off with a square knot, followed by three overhand knots up tight against the first knot, pretty much keeps the ends from untying.)

This creates a rather permanent frame that I leave up after the holiday.  However, last winter the snow was so unusually heavy, it collapsed the whole thing (read that story), so I had to start over from scratch.  But I can't really complain, because the old sukkah frame had lasted over 10 years.  Still, it is a lot of work to drag all those new poles in from the woods.  Not to mention finding appropriate trees in the first place.

Andy Cat, one of my "helpful"
construction workers who loves string!
Luckily, I had a bit of help from a road maintenance crew.  About two  weeks before I began my sukkah-building project, they came through and cut down a bunch of trees and brush along our road for fire control.  This gave me a set of nice straight maple poles -- all the verticals in the new sukkah frame are made from this free material.  I also got a good supply of white pine branches from trees they trimmed that were overhanging the road.  That, plus prunings from my own white pine that had bent down too low to mow under, gave me enough shchach to cover the sukkah.  Not only was this economical, it was also ecological, because I used materials that would otherwise have gone to waste.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Here is what the sukkah looked like after I got the basic framework up.  Four cinder blocks help to anchor it in place.   It still needs some more diagonal braces, which I installed after this picture was taken.  (I used a flash at early dawn,  to show up the frame better against the trees in the background.)



Covering the sukkah was a challenge this year, because most of the old sheets and bedspreads I used before were either torn or moldy.  My wife is very allergic to mold, so I had to throw most of it out and start over.   Because Rosh HaShanah had come back-to-back with the Sabbath, and Yom Kippur was on the Sabbath itself this year, I could not take advantage of all those Friday garage sales to find more used cloth.   Not to worry --  I did have a lot of feed sacks and some clear plastic on hand, so I used those instead.  To keep the wind from tearing these rather fragile materials off the frame, I put a strip of corrugated cardboard over the plastic where I was stapling to the wood.   That reinforced it very well.  The cardboard, of course, came from old boxes I got at the grocery.

Here is how the sukkah turned out.  The outside table has a bucket of water for the ritual handwashing, and there is room for more chairs around the card table if needed.  The side table is very handy for setting dishes aside.  Both of the low gray tables, by the way, are ones we already had for flea market sales,  A fourth wall could be added in front, perhaps by hanging a blanket, but that would have prevented me photographing the inside for this blog post.  Besides, we enjoy looking out at the scenery.



Definitely primitive, but functional.  And much closer to what Moses actually used.  He certainly didn't have any plywood on hand.  Then again, he didn't have any plastic, either.  (He probably used animal skins.)   But still, this sukkah did well to evoke the story of wandering in the wilderness.  Spiritually, what I got from this whole project is that we are to bloom where we are planted, and that God will provide for us, be we must also be creative in using what is available.  "Who is rich?  He who is satisfied with his portion!" (Talmud, Pirkei Avot.)  And by the way:  The whole thing only cost me about $15 out of pocket, for the nylon twine and some staples.  Thoreau would have been so proud!

(UPDATE 2012:  This year, the sukkah got an upgrade:  I was able to find enough old sheets at the thrift store to cover it with cloth instead of old feed sacks.  Since we took "salvage" quality rejects, we got enough for the whole sukkah for $5. The schach this year is tall grass and goldrenrod stalks.  My wife added the "woman's touch" with some fall-themed decorations.  It was also her idea to use the flowered sheet for the front -- making it nice and homey-looking.   And BTW, although the frame now leans a bit where it has settled in since last year, it is still good and sturdy, although I did add a few more diagonal braces.)

The sukkah upgraded in 2012

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