At its minimum, a sukkah requires three walls with the size of each being roughly two feet in length, two feet in width and three feet in height. These dimensions have been debated within Jewish writings for more than 1,500 years, but whether reviewing the Talmud’s take or that of later commentators, it’s clear that long before HGTV allowed viewers to voyeuristically enjoy “radical downsizing,” the subject of tiny houses was of considerable Jewish interest.
In a similar nod to minimalism, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reached out to community members with a single question: “If you could recommend one item readers have in their sukkah, what would it be?”
There were those who responded tersely, which seemed almost apropos, and others who gave great thought to a solitary suggestion.
Rabbi Seth Adelson, of Congregation Beth Shalom, said, “Let’s go with a utility knife, like a Leatherman or Swiss Army knife.”
The ability to easily open cans should not be neglected, imparted the spiritual guide.
Similarly practical in her advisement was Stefanie Small of Squirrel Hill, who noted, “I’d say an extra table, not so much for guests but because you never realize how much smaller a folding table is than your regular dining room table until you’ve run out of room for all your food, drinks, challah and place settings.”
The idea was comparable to Stephen Neustein’s, who as past international vice president of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, recommended a “table and chairs.”
For some people, paring down excess objects and determining one element proved challenging, and, like classical Jewish thinkers, these respondents parried the query with a question of their own, such as “Who else is going to be there?” or “Will I be sleeping in the sukkah?”
Other parties offered direct and thematically relevant replies.
“A lulav or etrog,” said Mark Frisch, an associate professor in the department of modern languages and literatures at Duquesne University, but “if those don’t count, a piece of fruit or a vegetable.”
Shira Berkowitz, who arrived in Pittsburgh last year from New York, shifted between footie pajamas and a birkon — the booklet containing the traditional grace after meals and celebratory songs, not to be confused with the Hermès-designed handbag known as a Birkin — as her ideal choice.
Arielle Avishai, who consulted with her husband Avi Avishai, both of whom actively cure beef as part of their Smokey Nat’s BBQ business, said, “An air conditioner.”
With heat index values reaching as high as they have recently, that might have been the most pragmatic of answers. But in the event of an unexpected chill, hand warmers may be best, remarked Donielle Morgenstern of Pittsburgh.
Comfort comes at a premium this time of year so ensuring optimal surroundings is key.
For that reason, Josh Swedarsky devised the ultimate Sukkot survival guide: If there is one thing every sukkah needs it is “a false wall to a man cave section,” said the Squirrel Hill denizen.
Adam Pollak, a local recreational craftsman, equally appreciates the cavernous qualities within some structures, which is why he said, “I believe the most neglected aspect of most sukkahs is the lighting.” Many times there will just be a “single, too bright bulb” suspended from above and “you don’t want your sukkah to feel like an interrogation room.”
Through the use of “several strands of clear Christmas lights,” which he admittedly purchased “on clearance at Home Depot the first week of January,” Pollak created an aesthetic effect in which his sukkah is less like the torture scene from “Syriana” (2005) and instead has “a beautiful warm and inviting glow.”
Illumination is important but pales in contradistinction to these constituents: As for a critical component of the sukkah, Maimonides, the medieval Jewish theologian, wrote in the Mishneh Torah, his 12th century legal compendium, “When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of the holiday], he is obligated to feed the convert, orphan, widow and others who are destitute and poor. Conversely, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and wife, without providing food and drink to the poor, and remains embittered, is not rejoicing in the seasonal commandment, but rather rejoicing in his stomach.”
The upcoming holiday is a chance for merriment and gathering. But in moments of repose one old-school apparatus shines, explained Rabbi Stacy Petersohn, of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.
“I would recommend that everyone have a copy of a book that they absolutely love in their sukkah — not an e-reader or an audiobook, but a real paper book. With a book, there is no chance of getting bored and no worries about losing battery in the process of reading it,” said Petersohn. It’s a “great way to disconnect and enjoy time in the sukkah.” PJC
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Adam Pollak’s name. The Chronicle regrets this error.