Story and Photos by
Jeff French Segall and Rachel Lulov Segall
Have you seen the small booths enclosed in fabric or surrounded by wooden boards that have popped up around the neighborhood and wondered what they are? Here’s a peek into one of the most joyous Jewish holidays — the eight-day festival of Sukkot, taking place this year from the evenings of October 9th through October 16th.
Our Sukkot community, those with whom we will celebrate, is composed of several Jewish families living in St. Martin’s Tower, the building above D’Agostino’s on West 90th Street and Columbus Avenue, and, as is often the case, includes friends and neighbors of any faith.
Every year at this time, Jews around the world construct these temporary booths, called sukkahs (sukkot, in Hebrew). This is in keeping with a tradition that goes back to the 40 years that the ancient Hebrews spent wandering in the desert after their liberation from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. During their long trek they needed to stop and hastily constructed temporary sukkahs in which to rest. After a short stay, likely a matter of a few days, they took apart their sukkahs, stowed their materials, and moved on.
To commemorate their arduous ordeal, observant Jews the world over build their sukkahs of relatively flimsy materials, perhaps wooden boards, but often tubular piping, and top them off with branches from which they hang fruit and decorations often made by children. Observers of the holiday walk to their synagogues, holding long sets of lulav (palm branches), and compact yellow fruit called etrogs, symbols of this special harvest holiday.
Sukkahs come in many sizes and styles, reflecting the ingenuity, taste, predilection and size of the small or large communities that will build, pray, eat, and often sleep in them during the eight days of the festival. One can look through the boughs of branches and hanging fruit that form their tops and see the stars.
In New York City, sukkahs can be seen on terraces, in backyards, in gardens, on rooftops, and on the sidewalks alongside host restaurants. Synagogues often build them on their rooftops — large enough to hold hundreds of celebrants, eating, singing, schmoozing, playing, and just plain enjoying this unique holiday. For smaller groups such as ours, sukkahs can be as small as the one in these photos, approximately 5′ x 12′ feet, in which a table and chairs are placed to accommodate about ten guests at a time. Some can be even smaller.
So, if someone invites you to visit them in their sukkah, ask what you can bring to the festivities and prepare to enjoy a tasty foray into an ancient and wonderful festival.