After the high of the High Holidays, twice-a-year Jews hang up their kippot for another 354 days, or so, and in the process miss out on the lesser-known treat of Sukkot. While not a "High" holiday anymore, Sukkot used to be one of the big three back in the time of the First Temple. The harvest festival was one of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays, when Jews would bring offerings to the Temple. While this ritual has changed, the main one -- that of dwelling in a sukkah, or booth, as our ancestors did in the wilderness -- remains. It's a commandment from Leviticus -- we're required to eat our meals in the sukkah, to actually live in it as much as possible, for eight days.
Besides it being a mitzvah, the idea of living closer to the natural world for a period can have spiritual resonance. And with stars visible through the foliage of your roof, and endless possibilities for festooning your sukkah with lights, flowers and traditional fruits, bringing family and friends together for an elegant outdoor dinner party only adds to that. For those of us who are used to thinking of the sukkah as something that more resembles a hut with Hebrew school decorations thrown on the walls haphazardly, here we offer tips for what is decidedly not your momma's sukkah -- and it turns out, it only requires a little more planning to create.
Theme-ing the Cube
Deciding on one thematic element is the first step to creating a cohesive design for your sukkah, according to interior designer Miriam Montag, owner of Memphis Lily Interiors in Los Angeles.
Floral, fruit or harvest themes are all good choices, according to Montag. Last year, she said, she used plastic grapes.
"I draped the grapes ... and clustered them down each pole and then linked them around the sukkah with vines," she said.
A friend of Montag's chose a different unifying element: "She draped tulle from the center out, kind of like a tent feeling, and tulle draped down the sides," Montag said.
Rita Milos Brownstein, author of "Jewish Holiday Style" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) goes one step further. Her book offers suggestions for three very disparate sukkot: a "garden sukkah," a "sukkah by the sea" (which needn't literally be seaside) and "the penthouse sukkah." From the materials she uses to build the sukkah, to the booth's interior, each design is customized according to theme: lattice and pine and floral bounty for the garden variety, bamboo and canvas for the seaside sukkah and silvery beads and corrugated fiberglass for the penthouse.
"The biggest key is the more the better. You need to make it bold ... and stick with one theme," Montag said.
Impossible to pronounce, but essential to your sukkah is the schach, or roof covering. While the walls of your sukkah can be made of just about any material -- the only directive is that they should be solid enough to inhibit the wind from blowing out a candle -- the schach, by contrast, must be porous enough to be able to see the stars from inside the dwelling. It also must be made of items that grow from the ground, and cannot become tamei (ritually unclean), but can no longer be attached to the ground, either. Only organic materials may be used on the roof, which means no staples or nails.
Brownstein offers various suggestions depending on the theme. A roof of aromatic young pines or branches accented with bunches of dried herbs or hydrangeas is perfect for a garden feel, she writes. Roll-up mats, which are a traditional choice, "have a clean, uncluttered, almost Japanese-screen flavor," as is bamboo, which "gives your sukkah a rustic, island look," she writes.
Here in Los Angeles, palm fronds abound and are another attractive way to crown your sukkah, and Montag stresses that any of these choices work beautifully.
"It's all preference, and what's easiest.... Whatever it is, you have to work it into your theme and it's you," she said.
Your walls, unlike your ceiling, are literally a blank canvas. Both Montag and Brownstein suggest splatter painting canvas walls for a kind of modern art look as one option -- one the kids will no doubt want to help out with, as well.
Montag again stresses practicality as the essential guide in choosing the material for the walls of your sukkah, which can be the same material as your roof. (Jewish law only requires that there be between two and a half and four walls.)
Brownstein suggests various options for different effects. For a Japanese-inspired look, she writes, opaque fiberglass walls give "the look of shoji screens," while "clear plastic sheeting is inexpensive and gives your sukkah a greenhouse look."
Woven lattice is Brownstein's choice for the garden-themed sukkah, with plastic sheets stapled to the outside of the walls to block the wind, and canvas or ripstop nylon for the "sukkah by the sea."
"If you use white nylon sides," she writes, "tie back your entrance flap for a look of casual elegance."
Decorations and Centerpieces: Be Fruitful and Multiply
Building on the theme through decorations is essential. For a harvest motif, Montag suggests placing wheat stocks on either side of entry, and then around the sukkah.
As many florists have taken to doing these days, Montag suggests incorporating fruit like grapes or pomegranates -- which are two of the sheva minim (seven species of fruit associated with the land of Israel in the Bible) -- with flowers, for distinctive centerpieces.
Hanging fruit and spice garlands, flanking your entryway with appropriate potted plants or flowers, or decking the ceiling with silvery beads are some of Brownstein's suggestions for adding atmosphere.
Lighting, of course, adds the final touch of ambiance. In some sukkot she's visited, Montag said, "sometimes you have this ugly bulb," but "run twinkle lights all around the sukkah and you don't even need other lights."
She also suggests Moroccan lanterns, which come in all shapes and sizes.
"You can get one big one, or you can do three" she said. "They're fun to mix and hang at different heights. They're not cheap, but it's an investment you use in your sukkah forever."
Brownstein suggests a romantic candelabra, "taking care to use short votives that won't place the flames too near the greenery," or seaside, Chinese bamboo lanterns inside and tiki torches outside as "a dramatic way to welcome your guests at night."
There is, of course the question of what to do about the children's decorations. Montag is quick to emphasize that the kiddie art doesn't have to be trashed to achieve a look of elegance.
"You should have your kids' stuff hanging there. That's the beauty of Sukkot," she said.
Of her mother's sukkah, Montag said, "The whole thing is decorated with things that we made over the years," and added to avoid a messy, haphazard look, a unifying element once again does the trick. "You can run ribbon around. You can use gold ribbon ... to hang all the same little decorative things."
Brownstein notes that with all of the decorations you make to hang in your sukkah, "most important, share the fun and creativity with the ones you cherish. These are the rituals that create the memories."
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