Jason Sheftell, Daily News Staff Writer
From Crown Heights to Borough Park to the upper East Side, in Riverdale, Kew Gardens and, of course, South Williamsburg, the sounds of song and dance coming from wooden boxes that look like sheds have given the city's Jewish neighborhoods the air of feast, festival and joy.
The boxes, some in backyards or on the street, others replacing upper floor terraces, are sukkahs, wood-plank temporary shelters where for one week Orthodox families eat all of their meals and are encouraged to sleep. Representing the same type of shelters that housed the Jews who won freedom from Egypt in the time of Moses, a sukkah symbolizes the nomadic homes built in the desert as the Jews made their trek to the Holy Land. Sukkot, the week-long holiday when sukkahs are built, ending today, is a type of Jewish Thanksgiving, saying thanks for life.
"The central tenet of Judaism is to rejoice, be happy and celebrate life," says Rabbi Joshua Metzger, director of the Chabad Lubavitch of Midtown Manhattan, whose group set up a sukkah in Bryant Park. "A sukkah is left open at the top because ultimately we are all under the protection of God, who is the real security over our heads."
Pieces of simple construction, a sukkah has four sides, three of which must be temporary. It also must be big enough to fit a large table, where the family dines. The roof must be made from organic materials like leaves, shrubs, tree branches or, as in most local cases, bamboo slats. The roofs, as Rabbi Metzger suggested, must have openings giving way to the stars.
Recently, a Jewish engineer created a pneumatic steel-roof sukkah that by the push of a button uses air instead of electricity to open and close two large panels. By biblical law, Jewish people cannot use electricity on the Sabbath or holidays. The pneumatic device allows some families to have open-air rooms usable on Sukkot and throughout the year when they want to eat under the stars. In most cases, it serves as the ceiling in home additions.
At Sukkah Depot, a store in Borough Park, a sukkah can range in price from a few hundred dollars for simple canvas materials to $2,000 and up for a brand-new, modern, wooden fold-up model. A plastic cover is needed in case of rain. All have doors. Some have sliding windows.
Inside, a sukkah can be a humble, intimate place. Decorations vary, and can include faux grapes, apples, pears, peaches and other fruit that dangle from ceiling slats. Some sukkah owners go the extra mile, using real organic materials coming from their own garden.
Mendel Krinsky of Carroll St. in Crown Heights uses flowers he grows himself. He plants certain varietals in the summer, nurses them diligently through the hot summer months, then hangs them in his sukkah as decorations for the week-long holiday.
"People come from all around to see what the flowers are like this year," says Krinsky, who was born two blocks from where he lives now. "I enjoy gardening and poking around in the backyard. I do it for the enjoyment of my family and friends."
This year, Krinsky lined the sukkah with mums for background and used chloris and multicolored leaves to spice things up. His wife does all the cooking.
On any given night they can have 26 to 27 people in the sukkah. His in-laws come from Chicago to spend the week. Krinsky's sukkah is actually his back garden, where he uses cedar planks to line the top of the structure and creates a pergola for a ceiling where he lays bamboo.
"I don't believe in hanging decorations like other people," says Krinsky, a property manager who works with a company that owns buildings all over the five boroughs. "The types of flowers we can use are endless. And when people come to my sukkah, they should be prepared to eat. As many flowers as I have, my wife has as many recipes."
In South Williamsburg, the city's most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, the area around Lee Ave. and Rutledge St. is transformed during Sukkot. Toy stores become outlets for decorative items such as fake fruit and twirling shiny pieces of paper sold for $1.60. Pop-up vendors sell bouquets of chrysanthemums, orchids and roses under makeshift New York Giants tailgating tents. Fish stores, bakeries and delis are on overtime as preparations begin and the week progresses, leading up to the end of holiday called Simchah Torah, or the time when the reading of the Torah is finished for one year and begins again for the next.
Inside a home on Middleton St., a backyard ground-floor sukkah made its debut for a proud family this year. Shopping at Sukkah Depot, the family brought home a 9-foot-by-12-foot wood-paneled sukkah with windows that can hold up to 20 people. The panels slide into place and come apart for storage.
"A good sukkah is a source of status," says the family patriarch who wished to remain anonymous. "I made our last sukkah myself when I got married. The rain ruined it. This year, my children came to me and asked for a new one. How can you say no to that?"
Inside this sukkah, Sukkot stars decorate the walls the way pieces of art dress up a home. Sukkot stars are pieces of colored, shiny paper melded together without glue. Multiple pieces of multicolored glassy paper are folded within each other to create elaborate pieces of art. These can take from 20 to 50 hours of work to craft. On the wall, they look like giant kaleidoscopes or an updated form of origami.
"All the children help out," says the father, a native of Williamsburg. "This is something that is passed down through the generations. My grandparents taught me how to do this.
"This year, we added something different around the edges and to the background. It makes them even more beautiful. This takes great care with a sharp blade. All the fretwork is by hand. The paper is interlocked to stay together. This takes concentration and skill."
On the table, a blue-glass salt holder sits next to wine glasses and a carafe. The tablecloth has simple designs. It is covered in protective plastic. A challah cover is prepared to sit on top of the bread. Outside, a cot is ready to be moved in after the feast for any child who would like to spend the night in the temporary home.
Lanterns hang from the ceiling. A round IKEA lighting device is covered in makeshift plastic leaves. It adds to the Swedish company's over-the-counter design. A digital frame shows the father's photos of the community. His children made little Sukkot scenes using miniature dolls. In one, they used dark fabric to add a beard to a male figurine.
"See, it is very clever," says the father. "They made a Hasidic man."
Inside, challah bread is coming out of oven. The father offers me some. It tastes like a little piece of heaven. Last night, the family was up celebrating till 3 a.m. Tradition dictates that they must have at least one guest per night who is not part of the family.
Next year, I hope it's me.
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