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Recalling the Desert While Wrapped In Goose-down


This article is a must read, about the Sukkah.

In recent years, when neighborhood kids gathered for an annual sukkah hop in Brookline, Mass., they started at one of the neighborhood’s crown jewels: a stately, wooden specimen, invincible in the face of New England wind and cold, belonging to Debbie and Mark Blechner.

Each year for 27 years, the Blechners have rebuilt the sturdy wooden structure, perhaps not acknowledging its value in the face of New England weather — although the wood certainly keeps out rain, and a closable door blocks the wind.

But this year, they are certain to appreciate the advantage that their sukkah has over other models.

Falling precariously close to the first days of winter, the Feast of Tabernacles this year threatens to be the kind of blustery, if not wintry, holiday that topples sukkot with a single gust, or the kind that glazes soup bowls with a layer of frost.

“It’s going to be colder than most years, that’s for sure,” said Rabbi Moshe Taub of The Young Israel of Greater Buffalo. In his area, temperatures have dipped in recent weeks.

But for some, Sukkot is always celebrated in the cold.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, each year David Crowson and his wife, Jennifer Eskridge, build one of the few sukkot around. “Sukkot is not a highly observed holiday here because it is so cold,” Crowson said. “There’s almost always snow falling before Sukkot or during.”

But give up Sukkot? They sooner would add layers of clothing, insulate the sukkah walls with colorful tapestries to break the wind or huddle in sleeping bags rated for 20-below weather. One “balmy” year when temperatures were merely freezing, Eskridge and her daughter (then 6) did just that. More commonly, the family builds a fire pit in the sukkah. It sits on a metal stand. The colder the temperature, the smaller the fire hazard, they say. “We always eat in [the sukkah], that’s a hands down. We’re Alaskans; we just put on more clothes,” Eskridge said.

For mere mortals in less arctic climates, hot soup, blankets and the occasional space heater are more common accoutrements of cold-ready sukkot, though the sky’s the limit for some.

“I always fantasized about building a sukkah with insulation,” said David A. Cantor, rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine.

In Pittsburgh, Dr. Michael Kentor and his family have a retractable roof that extends over the sukkah from their home. It doesn’t protect from wind or cold, but the glass has shielded many meals from rain.

On the other side of the world, in Melbourne, Australia, Ithamar Jotkowitz said that Sukkot’s main weather obstacle is a rainy and windy season. (In Melbourne, Sukkot falls closer to summer than to winter, and warm days can turn quickly into stormy and windy ones.) Sitting in the sukkah in a raincoat is a normal occurrence, he said — so much so that each family member plays a part in the “evacuation plan” should it rain.

“Once it starts, everyone knows what they have to do. First, get the chairs under the table — that’s key because the tablecloth is waterproof,” he said. But one year, the wind got the better of them. Their rabbi had joined them, and suddenly a gust of wind blew the skakh (roof) off the sukkah and into the swimming pool. (With the rabbi’s permission, they fished it out and put it back in place.)

To that end, those who sell ready-made sukkot say that those built to accommodate inclement weather are more popular than ever — especially the ones that are made of wood.

At Brooklyn’s Sukkah Depot, “business is booming” for those who want to buy what is billed as the “Rolls Royce of Sukkahs,” according to customer service representative Dovid Efune. The pre-fabricated sukkah is made out of laminated, pressed-wooden panels with an aluminum frame, and it’s 100% waterproof. It also has rubber seals that cover the sukkah’s metal joints to keep out the water, and the sturdy pressed wood holds up better against the wind than the more common canvas or plastic counterparts. And this year, for the first time, Sukkah Depot is selling a shlak, or rain cover, to protect sukkot from precipitation.

“Wood withstands the weather best,” said Rabbi Moshe Feller, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in the upper Midwest. Feller has been hawking pre-fabricated wooden sukkot to Jews in Minnesota since the 1960s. “Here, we’re not just the chosen people; we’re the frozen chosen,” he said. “It’s clear the only reason you are going outside is to fulfill the commandment of God, to dwell in the sukkot.”

In fact, no matter where they live, Jews — secular and religious alike — often question the timing of the holiday. “The whole concept of Sukkot to be in the fall makes no sense,” Buffalo’s Taub said. “It should be around the time of Passover; that’s when the Exodus [from slavery in Egypt] happened.”

Of course, the Torah commandment to eat and sleep in one’s sukkah allows for exemptions when facing inclement weather. “Someone who has significant discomfort is relieved from his duty of this mitzvah,” Taub said. But many rabbinic authorities suggest making the ritual blessing over wine and bread before heading indoors; stricter rabbis suggest that the exemption refers only to sleeping in the sukkah.

“To say that the cold weather should exempt us from eating in the sukkah is farfetched,” Taub said. “Although Buffalo is a cold city, it’s also a football city. Tailgating in the freezing cold is part of being a Buffalonian. When it comes to a half-hour eating in the sukkah, to weather the storm is something we do.”

In Bangor, Cantor — who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba — pointed out that some “sane, normal people do winter camping” and survive, let alone enjoy themselves. When he lived in Canada, he said, “Usually we suffered, but my wife and I believe in eating our meal in the sukkah. We put [up] two sets of tarp to make an insulation effect, put a space heater under the table that didn’t make a difference. We wore winter coats and gloves.”

“Practically speaking,” Minnesota’s Feller said, “it’s really the sign that you are doing it for a mitzvah, not just to have a nice time on the patio.”

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