Can a person be momentarily transformed by a combination of bamboo, aluminum, and a big tarp? Yevgeniya Mikityansky said when people come into her sukkah, they change.
“I truly believe there is something magical in there,” she said, remembering a stoic man she was astonished to see smile once he stepped under the sukkah’s bamboo ceiling strewn with heather and heard her husband strum his guitar. “People relax. It’s true honey to my heart.”
As the air turns brisk and the leaves turn gold, North Shore decks and backyards are suddenly dotted with these mysterious tiny houses, a rare, potent mix of the cozy and the sacred that represent the makeshift desert huts God provided the Israelites after they left Egypt. A sukkah is also a three-dimensional blank canvas that invites Jews to create a heymish space all their own.
“In December, kids see all these Christmas trees around with all the bobbles and all these bright, shiny things, and I remind [my kids] about the sukkah that we decorate every year,” said Barbara Rosenstroch, a Marblehead resident and Temple Sinai congregant. Like a Christmas tree, Rosenstroch’s sukkah is filled to the brim with precious ornaments amassed over decades.
“If we’re somewhere and we see something and think, ‘Oh, that would look good in the sukkah,’ then we get that, so all these things have added up over the years, little by little,” she said. Hanging on her sukkah walls are wind chimes, a string of orange lights, and laminated posters of Israel, where Rosenstroch once visited a massive sukkah right next to the Western Wall. She said it was sparse and minimalist despite its size, like many of the Israeli sukkahs she saw. Americans, meanwhile, seem to like to pack their sukkahs full of stuff.
Since Sukkot is in October [Oct. 13-20 this year], not December, Rosenstroch’s sukkah is more autumn in New England than winter wonderland. “We get a pumpkin every year, and we get chrysanthemums every year, and put them on the edges of the outside … We get gourds every year, sometimes we string cranberries,” she said. “We like the variety of adding new things.”
Phillip Blue, a Lynnfield resident and Chabad of Peabody congregant, also likes decorating his sukkah with emblems of autumn like cornstalks, wreath, garlands, and fall leaves. But Blue also decorates his sukkah with the priceless: artwork from his two daughters. He will never throw away anything handmade, so while the cornstalks may come and go each year, the preschool drawings will stay in the sukkah forever.
Blue also made the Christmas tree comparison, but pointed out that a sukkah is like a Christmas tree you can live inside. “We get a hut, and a hut is a whole lot bigger than any tree I’ve ever seen,” he said. During the eight days the sukkah is up, Blue turns that hut into a home, with tables, chairs, and couches. He brings a space heater so his family can eat his wife’s lentil curry and sweet potato stew, and one year, he even installed a sink connected to a drain pipe from the side of his porch. The one creature comfort he deliberately excludes from the sukkah is any electrical outlet: Sukkot is prime family time, and he plans to make the most out of it.
“People get distracted, and everyone eats dinner in front of a TV, and has an iPad, sits down, reads the paper, checks Facebook while having dinner,” said Blue. “When it’s Sukkot and you have a reason to eat in a place and you have to eat in a particular place because that’s what the holiday’s about, you end up with a full eight days of family dinners, and it can also be a full eight days of guests.”
The notion of the “guest” – or ushpizin – is an important part of Sukkot. Traditionally, Jews say a prayer each night to welcome into the sukkah seven biblical figures – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David – each of whom has an important lesson to teach. Those interviewed for this story said they also enjoy welcoming more contemporary, immediately visible guests, and numerous dinners and sukkah hops make the holiday a great way to reconnect with friends and family.
Yevgeniya Mikityansky and Vitaly Vatnikov, Marblehead residents and Temple Sinai congregants, have even hosted 25 members of Mikityansky’s dance troupe under their 8-foot-by-8-foot sukkah. “We had a dance session … and then after that we got into the sukkah, and it was such a great feeling. We said the barucha, and then we explained [the holiday] because at least half of the people weren’t Jewish, and some of them are Jewish, but they didn’t even know what it is,” said Mikityansky, who herself didn’t know about Sukkot until she moved to the North Shore from Moscow. “They were excited to learn, to taste it, there were Indian people, people who were Catholic, Jewish, we were all together under the same sukkah, and it left such a great memory for me.”
Mikityansky remembers her Moscow childhood, when everyone hung giant rugs from the walls to keep their apartments warm. “The walls were cold, and we slept near the walls and you had to touch it, so that’s why people put a lot of rugs on the wall,” she said. “And we do it here in the sukkah. We put some nice fabric or rugs, and it does actually bring some warmth.” Leaning against the rugs, Mikityansky and her family and friends drink warm cider and sip hot soup.
In Gloucester, just a few minutes from Hammond Castle – a towering stone fortress with a drawbridge – is a sukkah where the walls are decorated with medieval paintings. In 1973, Rabbi Myron Geller of Temple Ahavat Achim enlisted his four children to paint eight panels along the four walls of the sukkah that were copies of medieval representations of Jewish stories and holidays. His children scoured through books of medieval Jewish art to find the paintings they wanted to recreate. Over the course of a week, Bernie Cohen, a dentist, congregant, artist, and close friend, recreated the drawings onto plywood, and Geller’s children painted the colors, and wrote in the accompanying Hebrew descriptions.
The scenes include the Kohen Gadol (High Priest of Israel) lighting a hanukiah for Hanukkah; people baking matzah for Passover; Eretz Israel for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day; people sitting in a sukkah for Sukkot; Jonah being tossed overboard from a boat, about to be swallowed by a whale; Isaac about to be slaughtered by Abraham; Moses atop Mount Sinai, handing the tablets to his brother Aaron, for Shavuot; and Queen Esther looking at Haman leading Mordecai on his horse, for Purim.
“We were thrilled,” said Geller. “There is a famous sukkah the Rothschild family [the European Jewish banking dynasty] used to have with scenes painted on it, and we thought we were like the Rothschilds.”
Each Sukkot during Temple Ahavat Achim’s annual Sukkah Hop, students at the temple’s Sylvia Cohen Religious School (named after Bernie Cohen’s wife) stop by to see the sukkah painted by children their own age. They guess which panel corresponds to which holiday, and attempt to read the Hebrew. This year, Sukkot falls on Columbus Day weekend, so the original painters – now grown and living across the country – will come back to revisit their creation.
In front of a painting of Esther, under pomegranates hanging from a thatched roof, Geller and his wife Eileen held up a sign: “Mitzvah Accomplished.”