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Flowering of a Tradition

October 1, 2009 By:
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Benjamin Dorsey and family friend Emma Lynam help decorate the sukkah at the Dorsey's Maple Glen home.

In many ways, the sukkah booth that Leslie Sudock puts up every year in a "postage stamp-sized" backyard in Center City has become both an extension of her work as an artist and an expression of her own interpretation of Jewish tradition.

Sudock, a 50-something lawyer, musicologist, singer and artisan -- who lives with husband Dan Drecksage near Fitler Square -- painted the beams that support the structure, and decorated with banners, knitted fruits and vegetables, dragonfly lights, and fresh produce. (Drecksage is not Jewish, but the couple's two sons, now in their 20s, have been raised as Jews.)

Sudock also makes her own lulav and etrog sets.

Sukkot, the eight-day festival that begins on the evening of Friday, Oct. 2, "is one of the most positive expressions of Judaism in the world. Sukkot is so life- affirming, so community-affirming," said Sudock, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. "As a modern Jew, a post-enlightenment Jew, my task is to seriously engage with the tradition."

She said that she had never really observed the holiday growing up, but about eight years ago, she just decided to build a sukkah. The couple, who are regular campers and also heavily involved in the sustainable agriculture movement, were drawn to the clear correlation between the environment and the ancient harvest festival.

Now, in addition to inviting neighbors of all backgrounds and members of interfaith groups to dine al fresco with her family, Sudock has also become one of the organizers of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's annual Center City sukkah tour.

And her grown children still come by and help decorate the place.

According to observers of American Jewish life, a growing number of families are embracing the fall holiday, which not so long ago was an all-but-forgotten portion of the calendar for a large swath of non-Orthodox Jews.

The reasons for the trend are manifold, and no doubt coincide with the growing ease of searching the Internet for both how-to-do-it instructions and complete, ready-to-assemble sukkah kits. At the same time, superstores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, have popped up nearly everywhere, selling the notion to Americans that nearly anyone can do a little building -- with the right tools.

It's also clear that as "carbon footprint" and "green building" have become ubiquitous terms, a holiday that emphasizes getting away from modern conveniences and going outdoors resonates widely these days.

Way Back When, Just One Sukkah

But, according to Saul Wachs, professor of education and liturgy at Gratz College, there may be deeper factors at play.

Wachs, 77, recalled that in the West Philadelphia of the 1940s, only the rabbi had a lulav and etrog. The congregation had one sukkah -- at the synagogue. That's partly because few Jewish families in the neighborhood had little extra money to spare.

But perhaps more tellingly, few at that time wanted to call attention to their Jewishness in such a public way, explained Wachs. As America has become much more multicultural, expressions of difference or ethnic-consciousness have become more, well, American.

"America doesn't expect us to shed our religious identity," said Wachs.

He also noted that the flip side of such openness is the relative ease with which so many Jews can choose not to participate in Jewish life.

But Wachs added that those who are making the increasingly conscious choice to remain in the fold -- in whatever fashion they choose -- are working much harder at expressing Jewishness than previous generations, and putting up a sukkah is a visible manifestation of such a conscious lifestyle decision.

Rabbi Dovid Wachs (not related to the professor), executive director of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning in Center City and Elkins Park, agreed that there's an upward tick in families taking on mitzvot associated with the holiday. While he agreed that the festival is one of Judaism's most inherently child-friendly and aesthetically pleasing ones, he argued that in some ways, it offers a connection to God in a manner few others do.

"It's an exercise in trust. When you are sleeping outside like that, you are really saying that, 'God, I am in your hands,' " said Wachs.

Of course, even among Orthodox families, it's far more common to eat meals in the hut than to spend multiple nights sleeping outside together in the crisp air.

One reason that Sukkot has become more popular is simply that it's gotten so much easier to build a booth at home. Kits can be ordered online -- some require trips to the store for lumber, some come all ready to assemble -- and area synagogues of all denominations now regularly host workshops on how to put one together.

Among the explosion of Web-based retailers selling sukkah kits, prices range from less than $100 to more than $2,000, depending on the size and materials.

The Sukkah Project, a 14-year-old business in North Carolina, has shipped wood and metal kits all over the United States and numerous countries. It recently even received its first order from the Arctic Circle, in the northern tip of Norway.

Co-owner Judith Herman didn't provide exact sales figures, but did say that they've grown annually. (The company sells more sukkah kits than lulavs and etrogs.) She said that people in the past few years have been trying to economize by buying wood frames, rather than the more expensive metal ones.

"Sukkot has certainly become a very important holiday for the modern American Jew," attested Herman. "It lends itself to rejoicing in the sukkah. You don't have to have any liturgical knowledge. It's a venue for guests and hospitality, and it's consistent with environmental consciousness."

More Lulavs Than Sukkahs

Locally, Rosenberg's Judaica & Wine in Bala Cynwyd sells sukkah kits that range from $499 to a custom-ordered one that exceeds $2,000. But Ruvane Ribiat, a manager there, said that it typically sells more than 1,000 sets of lulavs and etrogs, but only a few dozen sukkah kits.

Ribiat said that he often encounters customers who are putting up a sukkah for the first time, and that he enjoys explaining some of the basics.

Elisa Heisman, program director at Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, noted that far more families in the congregation build a sukkah at home than order a lulav and etrog set through the clergy office. At the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, a Traditional synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia, the situation is reversed, with more people -- about 50 -- ordering a lulav- and-etrog set through the synagogue than build a sukkah at home, according to Jacques Lurie, executive director.

Jeremy Grant-Levine, a 27-year-old artist who lives in South Philadelphia and spent this past summer in Israel, gets his lulav and etrog from his father. But the sukkah he has built these past few years in his concrete backyard is entirely his own doing. Many of the decorations he finds in ethnic shops in the diverse neighborhood. On most nights, during the holiday, he holds cookouts in the booth, and neighbors tend to congregate.

"Most of my friends around here aren't even Jewish," he said.

In the suburbs, Penn Valley residents Liz and Bill Shaid said that they first built a booth about 10 years ago as an activity for their kids, now 7, 15 and 17.

But Liz Shaid, a 45-year-old nurse practitioner who attends services at both Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley and Lubavitch of the Main Line, said that now she looks forward to eating meals out there -- probably more than her children.

Last year, she had a group of friends over, and they heard singing coming from the yard of a neighboring Jewish family; soon, both gatherings were competing over who could sing the loudest.

Shaid said that she's gotten sukkah-building down to a science, and if she has to put it up herself, she can complete the task in about a half-hour.

"It's such a great system. There's metal rods that you just snap together and snap in place," she said.

Jennie Nerenberg and Bruce Dorsey, also members of Beth Or who live in Maple Glen, have three children between the ages of 5 and 10. They've been observing the holiday at home for about a decade, and normally host other families for a sukkah-building party. In fact, they use corn grown in their own yard to decorate the booth.

But this year, because Yom Kippur fell on a Monday and, according to Jewish law, you don't build a sukkah until after that day, the family wound up building it themselves after breaking the fast.

Said Nerenberg: "Our kids haven't convinced us to sleep out there, but I'm sure it's coming at some point."

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