Recalling the Desert While Wrapped In Goose-down

By E.B. Solomont

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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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.

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