Sukkot 5782-2021: A Sukkah Memory
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Sep 20, 2021
(updated and revised from Sukkot 5763-2002)
Growing up as one of the few religious Yeshiva students in the East Bronx in the early 1950s was not easy. My non-religious Jewish friends mocked my kippah, and my Tzitzit strings that sometime s stuck out. Of course, none of my Jewish or non-Jewish friends could pronounce my given name, “Ephraim.” So, they called me Brian, or O’Brian and teased me: "Fry him in the frying pan!"
Living in an apartment building in a neighborhood that was changing, there were few play areas where a kid could escape. One of the few locations of safety and tranquility was the back yard of our local "Shtiebel" (a little synagogue usually built in a private house, owned by the rabbi, often a Chassidic Rebbe). It was in that back yard, filled with shards of glass and other rubbish, that we cleared a little part near the fence to build our clubhouse, where we would go for solitude and camaraderie.
Each year, after the High Holidays, we would look forward to helping the Rebbe build the synagogue Sukkah and his own personal Sukkah, the first in the back yard, the second on the Rebbe’s 2nd floor porch. It was always exciting to put up the walls, place the final bamboos on top, and then decorate the interior with torn curtains from the Holy Ark and used velvet table covers with large Jewish stars.
My father, Moshe Buchwald, of blessed memory, an immigrant from Biala, Poland, who worked first as a sign painter, and then as a jeweler, was a true artist at heart. He even left his children several haunting portraits that he had painted in his youth. When he saw the synagogue Sukkah, he recoiled at the drab curtains and the torn cloths. One year he decided to take matters into his own hands. So, during the year, he shopped around every bargain store and odd-lot shop, looking for decorations. In those days, there were no special Sukkah decorations. In fact, the only decorations that could be found, were the ones used to celebrate the birth of "the little boy in Bethlehem."
You can imagine the surprise of the Chasidic Rebbe and his family when they walked into the Shtiebel's Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot and found flashing lights, tinsel, large gold and silver balls hanging from the bamboo roof, as ornaments in their Sukkah.
Now Jewish law states that once the Sukkah ornaments are up, they are "Muktzah" and may not be moved until the conclusion of the holiday. So, the Chasiddim of Honeywell Avenue and East 179th Street in the Bronx had eight days to get used to the “Christmassy” ornaments of their Sukkah. True, I was only a kid then, but if my memory serves me correctly, after a week of living in the Sukkah, the decorations actually grew on the Sukkah dwellers, and by the end of the holiday the complaints had ceased.
I still don't understand why, during the Sukkah construction period the following year, the Rebbe's family went to great lengths to make certain that no one put up any “unauthorized” Sukkah decorations!
The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Monday evening and all-day Tuesday and Wednesday, September 20, 21 and 22, 2021. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Monday, September 27th. On Monday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Tuesday, September 28th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Tuesday evening, September 28th and continues through Wednesday, September 29th.
Back in the good ol' days of the Bronx, there weren't many religious Jews, and very few private Sukkot. My father, of blessed memory, was not happy with the drab way the local synagogue had decorated its sukkah, and took it upon himself to redo the decor. The results of his interior decorations surprised everyone.