How to Transform Your Kit Sukkah Into Something Awesome
We built our first kit sukkah many years ago, when our eldest two children (now grown) were attending a Jewish nursery school. Up to that point, my husband and I had been unaware of pre-fab sukkahs, or really sukkahs at all -- maybe because building a transient field laborer's tent was not something it occurred to us to do on an apartment balcony or in an urban backyard.
The school, however, built its own big communal sukkah every year -- and encouraged parents to do the same at home. Even still we might not have succumbed had it not been for the enthusiasm of our kids. It's not often -- and let's admit, rare -- for children to jump up and down at the prospect of religious rituals. But this one called for a tent you build in your backyard, decorate, and then eat in!
Thus we were introduced to our first "kit" sukkah: a mass-produced, snap-together unit consisting of metal poles and canvas that arrives in a cardboard box. While my husband and I laid out the parts on the lawn, having bad Ikea flashbacks, our son and daughter began making and cutting out paper decorations for the sukkah.
It turned out to be much easier to assemble than a Swedish bookcase. We unfurled the canvas siding that you hung from the poles. It was ... ugly. The top half was militia gray, the bottom a dull blue. We dutifully tied it on and then struggled to fix a row of 1X2" rafters across the roof from which the "schach" -- an enclosed bamboo mat -- would rest atop (it actually sagged through the gaps and fell down numerous times).
Typical Kit Sukkah
The result was not what you'd call magical -- but to the kids, it was as if we'd built a Disney castle in the backyard. We moved in a small outdoor table, some chairs, and hung the paper decorations. We found a place to display the lulav and etrog, and on the first night of Sukkot, managed to eat most of a meal out there before being driven in by bugs. But it was, as the kids enthused, great. Maybe made greater by the incongruous urban setting: a snug little tent amidst the sound of passing cars and distant sirens. The strange structure attracted a few inquiries from the neighbors. Were we bringing in livestock next? The holiday was explained to puzzled reactions -- but soon the kids next door were joining in and playing in our sukkah.
Over the years I've wondered why we need to stick with the dismal trappings of the kit sukkah. The metal structure itself is sturdy, comes in several sizes, and as noted, is easy to assemble. But why continue with the homely canvas cover? Why not use twine to weave an overhead web from which to hang things, rather than ungainly wood rafters? Why drape the unstable bamboo mat over the top when you can use real branches and foliage? All of this is permitted (remember: there were no kit sukkahs in Biblical times. You can read the rules here).
So I began to experiment: One year I hung white Sunbrella outdoor curtains from the frame, and secured them with ties along the bottom (there is a stern anti-billowing rule). It looked fabulous -- like an elegant cabana. I collected lanterns of all colors and types to glow above our heads. Some years I used corn stalks for the schach, on other years, willow branches -- both readily available from my local garden store. Another year I brought in a tea table I'd found in the Istanbul market, and we sat on pillows, eating Turkish appetizers.
For a Fig Tree & Vine sukkah, I imagined a Moroccan-themed tent: something luxurious, with kilim rugs covering the grass and cushions strewn about -- an oasis of civilization in the desert, down to the beautiful vessels of steaming mint tea.
When I was last in Jerusalem, I met with Bilal Abu Khalaf, one of the most famous vendors of fabrics in the ancient Christian Quarter. Bilal, of Kurdish descent, makes robes for both Christian priests and Orthodox rabbis, (the latter whom rely upon him not to mix wool and linen). Could he create a sukkah kit for our subscribers? I asked him. I imagined it to be composed of fabric panels sized to fit standard kit sukkahs (from 4'X 6' to as large as 10' X 12').
Bilal Abu Khalaf, in his Jerusalem shop. Photo by Eliran Dahan.
It turns out Bilal has made many sukkahs, and certainly could make them for us. He sewed a prototype from a striped Moroccan fabric of my choosing, pictured. Unfortunately the prototype had some kinks, now fixed -- but I was unable to offer it in time for subscribers to order for this Sukkot (beginning the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27). However if you'd like me to place an order so you have it for next year, I can do so. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can give you pricing. Bilal will throw in 2 coordinating 24" floor pillow covers.) This year's will have to do as an inspiration for your own kit sukkah.