I have been thinking a lot about roots lately. About where I would like to settle with my daughter, buy a house, adopt a puppy. When we left our hometown of Atlanta eight years ago, I didn't know how long our adventure would last. I didn't know we would live in small, but charming apartments, first in calm, rainy Portland, then in frenetic, sunny Los Angeles. And that after a while, the temporary nature of our dwellings, and so much time spent far away from where we started, would pose a question of its own. Where do we belong?
It seems the core ritual of Sukkot, building the sukkah, has something to say about just that. According to tradition, this temporary, four-walled structure with a branch roof open to the sky is a reminder of the Israelites' huts in the deserts, as they wandered from place to place for 40 years. The sukkah also highlights one of the themes of the holiday -- the impermanence of our lives, says Michael Strassfeld in "The Jewish Holidays, A Guide & Commentary" (HarperResource, 1993).
Strassfeld explains that in a Talmudic debate over the meaning of the sukkah, Rabbi Akiva argues, "The sukkah makes us realize what sheltering is all about," and that our permanent homes, with glass windows, high walls, and locked doors, are not where true security lies.
Strassfeld adds that Rabbi Akiva's view of carrying our dishes and our food outside to be eaten in a portable, shaky structure reminds us "we must be able to carry a sense of shelter with us wherever we go because to become too rooted in one place makes us inflexible."
And if the wind rattles the walls, or raindrops interfere with dinner, Rabbi Akiva feels the sukkah teaches us that "no one can protect his or her spirit from all of life's contingencies."
Beth Shir Shalom, the small synagogue my daughter and I discovered a few years ago not far from our apartment, has a special Sukkot ritual that deliciously honors the rewards of temporary but open, creative shelters.
Each year, in the back parking lot near the Sukkah, there is a long folding-table laden with boxes of graham crackers, tubs of frosting and bowls and bowls of candy. The children gather around it to build graham-cracker sukkahs held together by chocolate and vanilla mortar and brought to joyous life with strips-of-licorice roofs, marshmallow windows, and walls decorated in red, yellow, green, blue and orange fruit-shaped candies.
They lick their fingers and make a terrific mess, but each builds something closer to a sugar-coated memory than a long-lasting house.
After the rabbi and cantor say the prayers and sing in the real sukkah, and my daughter and I leave carrying her own thickly-frosted one, I feel grateful for having been there, and for balmy evenings in the California air.
Later, when we step inside our apartment, turn on a small light, and take a bite of the candy-coated roof -- and then another -- watching the moon hanging in our porch window while the chocolate layers dissolve in our mouths, continuing until the sukkah is no more, I understand the heart of home, permanent or otherwise, beats in these moments.
Frosted Candy Sukkah
1 pound box honey graham crackers
1 16-ounce container chocolate frosting
1 16-ounce container vanilla frosting
Assortment of colorful candies of your choice (we used red licorice vines, gummy bears, candy hearts, marshmallows, Skittles and dots)
With a small, child-safe utensil (plastic knife, or spreader works well), frost the flat sides of graham crackers before constructing.
Then layer bottom, top, and side ledges of cracker with frosting to help walls stand. (HINT: It also helps to put a line of frosting on the area of the plate you plan to erect your sukkah.)
Adhere crackers to one another, and to the plate, carefully, pressing gently. The frosting will hold better with time as it hardens.
Gently layer candies onto or around the structure to your own design specifications. Sukkot are meant to be decorative, so the more color the better!
Take a picture, eat and enjoy!
Builds: Seven to eight sukkot using three to four crackers per sukkah.