Each year, beginning right after Yom Kippur until the start of Sukkot, Yitzchok Gordon takes off his painting contractor’s hat and becomes the go-to schach guy of Squirrel Hill.
While some sukkah-builders in the city order bamboo mats online, use wooden slats purchased from Home Depot or Lowe’s, or grow their own, others prefer to dwell for the week of Sukkot in huts overlaid with the fresh evergreen or palm branches offered for sale by Gordon.
Gordon moved to Pittsburgh from Northern California 16 years ago, and has been selling schach here ever since. Sukkot, he said, is his favorite holiday, and he enjoys helping people fulfill the mitzvah of building a kosher sukkah.
While any type of material strong enough to withstand a normal gust of wind can be used to build the walls of the sukkah, the material used as its roof must adhere to certain requirements: It must be of plant origin, but now detached from the ground; it must not have been used for any prior purpose; it must not be edible; it must never have had the status of a utensil or have been capable of becoming ritually impure; and after being placed on the top of the sukkah, it must yield more shade than sun.
Gordon first began his schach service by going out with a couple of local kids to private properties — after obtaining permission — climbing the evergreen trees himself, and cutting the branches. But for the last five years, he has had some help from two non-Jewish members of the community, Matt Jurich of Wilmerding and Tony Pampena of Penn Hills, who donate their time and efforts out of their love for God.
Jurich and Pampena go “out of their way to find evergreen branches and cut them down, on private properties, with permission,” Gordon said. “One is retired, and the other is a laborer. They do a lot of good deeds and they are happy to do this mitzvah.”
Jurich and Pampena were introduced to Gordon by a mutual Jewish acquaintance Jurich had met while attending services at an Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a blessing to have this opportunity,” Pampena said of his schach work, adding that through the years, he has become close with Gordon’s family, and looks forward each year to being invited to Gordon’s sukkah.
“I feel a closeness and a connectedness with the people of God,” Pampena said. “The world is a pretty hateful place right now. There needs to be a reconciliation, and God is the one that can reconcile us.”
Gordon sells the evergreen branches for $22 per bundle. Each bundle covers about 30 square feet. The small palm branches he sells are imported from Mexico. They are 18 to 24 inches long, and are also sold for $22 per bundle.
“They overlap, like fish scales,” he said. “They are uniform, and give the sukkah a tropical look. But they do blow away in a strong wind. I suggest people weigh them down.”
Several customers prefer the palm branches, he said, because in addition to the uniform look, they do not pose the risk of pine needles falling into one’s food, as do the evergreen branches.
“But I don’t think that’s a big problem,” he said. “I try to get the branches cut close to yom tov, and they generally don’t drop too many needles.”
Gordon estimates he sells about 60 bundles of evergreen branches each year, and about 100 bundles of palms. He offers free delivery to Squirrel Hill, Greenfield and Shadyside, and he has a lot of repeat customers, as well as a few new ones most seasons.
Delivering the schach is one of the highlights of the business for Gordon.
“I get to see some really creative and interesting sukkahs,” he said. “Especially those that are built by people who are building sukkahs for the first or second time. They tend to put together some really cool sukkahs.
“I think Sukkot is a fantastic holiday,” continued Gordon, who grew up frequently camping with his family out West. “I love it. You get to be outdoors with your whole body. You don’t have to be anybody, or dress any special way. You just go into the sukkah, and can read the sports page, or bring out your TV and watch the Steelers game. You don’t even have to know Hebrew. You just go out there. And I like the hands-on part of Sukkot.”
For those who prefer not to replace their schach each season, bamboo mats that last for several years may be the way to go. Community members may order those mats from Poale Zedeck a few weeks prior to the commencement of the holiday. Prices range from $65 to $115, depending on the size. They can also be purchased online at sukkah.com, or the sukkahproject.com.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.