It was 1973. In their East Gloucester home, Rabbi Myron (Mike) Geller and his wife Eileen were thinking about what kind of sukkah to build. In their Brooklyn childhoods, sukkahs were made of boards hammered together in backyards, on streets, or on fire escapes. Mike remembers his Uncle Willie, a carpenter, patching together a sukkah out of whatever old doors he had lying around. Families who lived on higher floors would pass pots of food up and down on pulleys. Remarkably, nothing ever spilled.
But in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the Gellers had seen a “spectacular” sukkah from 19th century Germany, with illustrated panels. They decided they could do better than Willie’s old doors.
They bought eight 4×8 plywood panels, and started researching medieval manuscripts. They decided that each panel would represent one of the seven major Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot, Chanukah, and Purim. The eighth would represent Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. At the time, the country was celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Their friend Bernie Cohen sketched the illustrations on the panels. Then, using leftover house paint, some of their children – Susan Cohen, 14, Jesse Geller, 12, Becky Geller, 9, and Debbie Geller, 3 – filled in the paintings. Actually, Debbie was given a rag, and did what was referred to as “the Debbie schmear” on some of the bottom areas. (Debbie went on to become an art major in college.)
“It was quite the experience,” said Susan Cohen. “It was cold. By the end of the day, we were in our jackets, painting.” She remembered that sometimes the kids made some decisions about colors, and sometimes, “the adults told us what to do.” She recalled that her mother, Sylvia, “definitely contributed to keeping motivation positive,” and that Rabbi Geller made sure that they talked about the stories as they painted them.
The Gellers gathered marsh hay from nearby wetlands. Although, as Jesse recalled, “what my father didn’t calculate for was that he was very allergic to it.”
The family took their meals in the sukkah.
“Sometimes it’s hot,” Mike said. “Sometimes it snows. The practice is to say Kiddish and the Motzi. The mitzvah is to sit down in the sukkah.” The family debated about whether to get heaters. They didn’t.
“There were some pretty cold nights,” Jesse recalled. “Sometimes we would cheat a little and have dessert inside the house.”
On the Friday night of the holiday, the Gellers invited the Temple Ahavat Achim congregation for a service and Oneg Shabbat.
They constructed the sukkah to open into the French doors of their dining room to accommodate the large numbers who attended.
Over time, some of the edges of the panels and the supporting boards decayed a little. Mike trimmed the edges, changed the supports from 2x4s to 2x3s. Jesse and his son Levi took over the heavy lifting.
The communitywide events came to an end. Then, in 2016, the Sylvia Cohen Family Learning Project, under the leadership of Phoebe Potts, instituted a Sukkah Crawl, visiting three Gloucester sukkahs, with a blessing and a snack in each. This year, the number has grown to five for this Sukkot – which will be observed from Sept. 29 to Oct. 6.
“The Gellers’ is kind of a jewel because of the paintings,” Potts said. “It definitely captures the kids’ imagination. It gives the kids a sense of what’s possible. We’re so grateful that they invite us over.”
Now, Matt Enslow, a congregant who is a contractor, and his son Elijah, a recent bar mitzvah, lend the Gellers a hand.
Susan Cohen said when her kids were young, “because of the Geller sukkah, we created a sukkah. But we made ours out of canvas.
“It was fun,” she said. “It was a great project. Art and time.”