Family

Remembering My Grandmother Each Year on Sukkot

Curating my grandmother’s famous tabletop sukkah has become one of my family’s most treasured rituals Read More

By / October 5, 2012

After Yom Kippur ended this year, my family began to prepare for Sukkot. We took the sukkah out, set up the frame, and then carefully put on the top and covered it with leaves. We then hung up construction paper fruit and two bunches of plastic grapes. Between two of the poles, my mother tied a piece of string, and then, one by one, hung up Rosh Hashanah cards.

Together, we then set up the tables and chairs, placed a plant near a rear pole and a basket of apples near another. Finally, just before sukkot started, we set the table with a tray of black and white cookies, a plate of cupcakes, two bowls of fruit, and bottles of seltzer and wine. All of this was on the same table.

The sukkah we so meticulously set up and decorated is my grandmother’s tabletop sukkah, which my family curates each year. I say curate because it will always be my grandmother’s sukkah, and anything we place in it was not in the original design, but honors her artistic vision.

When my grandmother, an artist and rabbi’s wife, came up with the idea for the sukkah, she had a florist create the frame. The frame consists of four green wooden rods that serve as poles and a green wooden rectangle, which sits on top of the four poles. In the center of the rectangle is mesh wiring. The sukkah’s design reflects that of a traditional sukkah, only on a much smaller scale.

I never celebrated Sukkot with my grandmother so I never had the chance to see how she set up and decorated her sukkah. My Aunt tells me that it sat prominently on the table and that my grandmother adorned it with evergreens and hung miniature squash from the wire. Since my grandparents lived in an apartment in Chicago, it was this small sukkah that was the Cohen family sukkah.

A few years before she passed away, my grandmother gave us the sukkah. Sitting proudly on our dining room table, the Cohen sukkah was decorated to match our backyard sukkah. Construction paper apples, oranges, and bananas were hung with string from the wire, just as plastic fruit hung from the top of our sukkah. We turned to my dollhouse for a table that would mirror the patio table from our backyard, and then sat the family that lived in the dollhouse around the table.

This lasted for several years, until the dollhouse contents and residents were misplaced when my mother moved into an apartment in Manhattan. Last year, a sukkah remodeling was needed, and we took the task very seriously. My mom went to a dollhouse store and purchased the equivalent of a backyard bench and chairs, a small table with plates and cups, and a mini basket of apples. We still had the construction paper fruit, and bunches of plastic grapes that had once hung in our backyard sukkah.

But then last week, as we started setting up the tabletop sukkah, we realized that the new furniture was not enough. The structure felt incomplete. To make it into my grandmother’s sukkah again, we had to do more. More dollhouse items—a floor plant, a full table set, and food and beverages—made it feel warm, but we needed more of a sense of family tradition. We settled upon our longtime suburban ritual of hanging Rosh Hashanah cards from the top of our backyard sukkah.

My mom took a card we had recently received from a family friend, and from it made a dozen mini cards. Then, we made the first major change to the sukkah frame since it sat in my grandmother’s apartment in Chicago. We added cloth walls, a significant addition to the structure and a pretty emotional renovation.

All together the furniture, construction paper and plastic fruit, food, cards, and cloth walls make this year’s sukkah one that we would very much like to sit in, were it full size. More important, it’s a structure that honors my grandmother. How the sukkah is decorated may have changed, but its meaning remains the same—it’s the Cohen family sukkah, and we’re very proud of it.