Tomorrow is Succos, the happiest day of the year. September, a month ripe with Jewish holidays, has already yielded another Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, another New Year and Day of Atonement. Now comes Succos, the feast of tabernacles. In commemoration of the years the Israelites spent wandering, after they passed dry-shod through the Red Sea, out of Egypt and into the desert on their way to the promised land, observant Jews will spend this week eating in the almost out-ofdoors, in a makeshift structure known as a sukkah. Some will have walls of bamboo, some of carpet, some of sturdier stuff. But all will have ceilings made of branches, branches that let the light of the stars shine through.
The sukkah at Alan and Elisheva’s house is a fine, sturdy one. One wall is provided by the exterior of their College Area home, another is open to the covered patio (except for a small, upright plywood rectangle, about which we shall hear more later). The other two are formed from great plywood panels, roughly four feet by eight feet, reinforced with wooden slats and held together by hinges. The panels spend most of the year stored beneath the house, but now they stand upright, knit in place by a grid of more slats overhead, over which the palm branches will be laid. The palm leaves radiate out from the end of each spiny branch to form great circles; the couple’s son Yehuda obtained them by following a city tree trimmer.
Yehuda, 21, is one of seven children, five of whom will attend tomorrow’s dinner. (One is married with a child and living in University City; another is in New York.) Esther, the youngest at 13, climbs onto the roof of the house to lay branches on the grid. Yehuda and his sister Shira, together with Shana, an “adopted daughter” who has attended every Shabbos and holiday held here for years, work from below. Their mother Elisheva is in the brown kitchen — brown vinyl floor, brown wood cabinets and shelves, tan wood-grain Formica countertops. The kitchen is well used; the family is full of cooks.
“When I first left home, I didn’t know anything about cooking,” says Elisheva.“My mother wanted her kitchen to be spotless, and I might make a mess. So I was not allowed in the kitchen, except to set the table. When I met my husband, we were freshmen in college. He said, ‘Let’s go on a picnic. I’ll buy the chicken and you can cook it.’ I had no idea what to do; I got a cookbook quick. I learned first from cookbooks, and then later I learned that when you go to someone’s house and you have a meal that you like, you save recipes.”
Now the bookshelf in the long, wide (wide enough for three to pass easily) kitchen is full of cookbooks: Better Homes & Gardens, Cookbook Classics, The Kosher Kitchen: The Spice and Spirit of Kosher Jewish Cooking from the Lubavitch Women’s Organization. I recognize the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery from my own childhood. Here, there is a story behind the books. “When I first got married, Alan’s brother was in a fraternity. They didn’t have meals at the fraternity on weekends, so he would come to us, and I would cook and he would wash the dishes afterward. He would accuse me of saving all my dishes from the whole week for him, but it wasn’t true. He just had no idea how many dishes it takes. At one point, one of the supermarkets was putting one volume of those out a week. He would bring it as a present, and we would try new recipes each week.”
Tomorrow is Succos; come sundown, it is also Shabbos, which means that no work will be done. “On the seventh day, He rested.” Adds Elisheva, “We say, six days a week, Ha-shem wants us to make the world a better place and improve it. But on the seventh day, the world can run for 24 hours. We can just sit back and not make improvements on things. It’s really a day to be with your family and to learn and to go to synagogue — a little island in time. We won’t write on Shabbos, no radio, no TV. We won’t answer the phone, we won’t drive, we won’t do any new cooking.”
Which is not to say she won’t do anything with her old cooking. “We won’t do anything with electricity or with fire — anything that’s creative, where we’re changing the world — but my oven is on a timer. Things that we’ve cooked beforehand, I’ll put them in the oven just to stay warm.” (The timer provides something of a loophole: Elisheva’s husband Alan acknowledges that some Jews will have timers on their TVs that turn them on just before kickoff, though he himself does not consider that to be in the spirit of the day.)
“Things that we’ve cooked beforehand” covers a great deal in terms of both time and material. “This week was really an easy week,” explains Elisheva, “because my daughters Sara and Shira are both home on vacation.” Sara attends college in New York; Shira is a sophomore in a Los Angeles Jewish high school. “They were here to do a lot of the cooking. Normally, Esther and I do all of the cooking, and I’m working all day and she’s in school. We do one thing each night, so that we get everything done by Friday night, but this week, with my daughters here, it was nice. They’re both good cooks. I’ve been getting spoiled.”
A list sits on the kitchen counter. It reads:
- Cinnamon buns — Sara
- Caramel squares — Shira
- Fish — Yehuda
- Cabbage salad — Sara
- Matzoh ball soup — Shira
- Sweet potato pie — Shira
- Brisket — Mom
- Candied yams — Esther
- Spinach puff — Shira
- Salmon — Mom
- Hot dog soup — Mom
- Carrot kugel — Sara
- Chicken, potatoes, onions,
- mushrooms — Mom
- Muddy Buddies — Esther