Everything Is Explained

Ingredients: Building a Sukkah in a Brooklyn Backyard

By Leah Koenig

Published September 23, 2009, issue of October 02, 2009.
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Building a sukkah is serious business. It takes brawn and wit and a steady hammer. It takes dedication and a keen eye for design. After all, a sukkah is a sacred shelter — as mythic as a treehouse and as inviting as a dining room table. It is a place to stargaze, to spend time with family and friends and, most important, to savor the abundant edible joys of the fall harvest.

Sawhorse: Jonathan Safran Foer demonstrates the carpentry skills that were used, while brother Joshua bears the load.
Sawhorse: Jonathan Safran Foer demonstrates the carpentry skills that were used, while brother Joshua bears the load.

It is fortunate then, that Jonathan Safran Foer and his younger brother, Josh Foer, are two very serious fellows. Jonathan, 32, teaches creative writing at New York University and is the author of such novels as the globally acclaimed “Everything Is Illuminated” and his forthcoming investigative memoir, “Eating Animals.” Josh, 27, is a science journalist for National Geographic, among other publications, who dreams up such epic projects as the Atlas Obscura, an online collection of the world’s curiosities.

So when these two brothers decided to build a sukkah — a solid pine frame with burlap walls, covered in fragrant dried corn stalks — in Jonathan’s Brooklyn backyard last year, they were all business. Leah Koenig’s questions give us a behind-the-scenes look (well, a behind-the-house view) at the brothers hard at work.

What sort of sukkah traditions did your family have growing up?

Jonathan Safran Foer: According to family legend, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Menashe Chrabolowski was a master sukkah builder. He was known to fashion whimsical yet sturdy structures from nothing but burlap and waxed dental floss.

Josh Foer: The gene has obviously been diluted. Our father, God bless him, is a man of many talents, but wielding a hammer isn’t one of them. Growing up, he had to have the father of one of Jonathan’s friends construct our family sukkah.

JSF: It was a Freudian nightmare.

What is the strangest/most beautiful sukkah you’ve ever seen? Aside from the one you built, of course.

JSF: We’re faithful to our sukkah.

J.F.: It was the Bilbao of sukkahs.

JSF: The Pele of sukkahs.

J.F.: A bad mutha-sukkah.

Have you collaborated on building projects in the past?

J.F.: Mattress forts.

JSF: Last year we built a puppet theater for my son.

J.F.: I built. He watched.

JSF: I didn’t watch.

What was the appeal of building a sukkah?

J.F.: We’re supposed to be the People of the Book, but we’re actually the people of the carpenter’s square. From Noah to Jesus to Norm Abram, it’s a very proud tradition, you know.

JSF: Always hammering or getting screwed….

Was the design based on anything in particular?

JSF: The favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

What materials did you use, and where did they come from?

J.F.: The frame was pine, the walls were burlap, and the schach —

JSF: Gezuntite!

J.F.: — was mostly cornstalks.

JSF: We went to the local gardening store. I was trying to explain to a Dominican guy behind the counter that we needed a whole bunch of cheap greenery for an art project we were working on. He was like, “Oh, you mean, schach?”

Were there any mishaps involved with building it? Any particular moments of grace?

JSF: No mishaps, per se. Moments of grace?

J.F.: Remember when the ladder fell and I just hung there, floating in the air?

JSF: Yeah, that was something.

How did you decide where to build the sukkah?

J.F.: Our original design idea was a floating sukkah. It was going to have curtain walls and be suspended from above by cables.

JSF: Directly from God’s beard.

J.F.: Directly from Jonathan’s magnolia tree. I had four pieces of steel specially fabricated for the project. But that idea got nixed by a rabbi. You can’t build a sukkah under a tree, you know.

JSF: No. That’s not it. We decided the tree couldn’t support the weight.

J.F.: Right.

Where did your etrog and lulav come from?

JSF: We got the lemon from D’Agostino, and the schwag from a head shop.

J.F.: My father-in-law bought mine.

What foods do you remember eating in the sukkah last year? Anything that stands out in your memory? This is a food column, after all.

JSF: The afikomen.

J.F.: It was stale.

JSF: It started stale.

J.F.: How do you know when matzo has gone bad? When it starts tasting good? Bada bing!

J.F.: My wife made an amazing feast one night, and we had a whole bunch of our friends over. She served the soup in little carved-out pumpkins.

JSF: You’re thinking of Halloween.

J.F.: No, on Halloween she made matzo ball soup.

J.S.F.: We had some of my son’s friends over for a party the next day. They tore down all but two of the walls.

Jonathan lives next to a Chabad House — did either of you ever sneak a peak at their sukkah? How did yours compare?

JSF: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s sukkah.

J.F.: No offense, but those guys haven’t had a noteworthy piece of architecture since 770.

Are you planning to make building a sukkah together a yearly tradition?

JSF: When conceiving the project, we amortized the cost of the materials over 15 years, so the answer is yes.

J.F.: Actually, Jonathan is on his own this year. I just moved to New Haven, where I finally have space to build my own sukkah

JSF: The New Haven board of tourism should make use of that. “New Haven: where you can finally have space to build your own sukkah.”

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column on food and culinary trends. She lives in New York City. She can be contacted at ingredients@forward.com

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