WSJ: "Think 'Pimp My Ride' meets the MIT Sukkah"

On a Jewish Holiday, Backyard Parties Get More Elaborate --- The Ritual Huts of Sukkot Now Feature Hammocks, Organza and Sukkah-tinis
By Katherine Rosman 12 October 2006 The Wall Street Journal

Sukkot, the annual Jewish "Feast of Tabernacles" commemorating the 40 biblical years Jews spent wandering in the desert, is getting a makeover.

The weeklong holiday, which ends this weekend, is best known for the leaky rustic temporary huts celebrants put up to eat, sleep and entertain in during the holiday. They symbolize the tents lived in by Israelites after they were cast out of Egypt in Exodus.

Now, amid the do-it-yourself home-improvement craze and a movement among young Jewish families to integrate more ritual into their lives, families around the country are toting tools and prefab sukkah kits into the backyard.

One nationwide prefabricated sukkah manufacturer has sold out of its top-of-the-line model. It is made in China with pressed-wood walls and can be ordered with a bamboo roof and fake stained-glass windows. It sells for as much as $2,600. A Chicago Judaica company has sold 150 sukkah kits that range in price from $300 to $2,000 -- nearly twice as many as it sold two years ago. Last month, a Home Depot in Oklahoma City sponsored its first sukkah-building seminar.

A 12-by-14-foot sukkah was erected on Tuesday near Farragut Square in downtown Washington, D.C., with a rabbi offering lawyers and lobbyists the opportunity to eat pizza in the hut. Last Thursday, a Jewish organization at Massachusetts Institute of Technology held its first party devoted to elaborate sukkah decoration. "Think 'Pimp My Ride' meets the MIT Sukkah," said the invitation, alluding to a popular MTV show about decorating cars with extravagant details.

"At this rate, I can imagine Sukkot soon becoming as widely observed as Passover," says Steve Henry Herman, a co-owner of a company in Chapel Hill, N.C., that makes sukkah kits and golf-tee targets. Dr. Herman's business is doing so well he quit his day job as a professor in the psychiatry department at Duke University Medical Center.

The recent embrace of Sukkot represents a marked increase in stature for a holiday that until recently was largely overlooked by all but the most observant Jews. "It was way, way down on the ladder," says Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Calif. In part that was because of where the festival fell on the Jewish calendar, after the most solemn holidays of the year, Rosh Hashana and then Yom Kippur.

The other big change is that people traditionally didn't spend $5,000 erecting elaborate sukkot for the harvest holiday, and they didn't have marketers and event planners on hand to urge them to party.

On Monday night, a Jewish professionals group in Los Angeles hosted a "Sukkah Sports Night." Fifteen dollars at the door entitled attendees to "Kosher wings, cold beer and Monday Night Football," according to the event's promotional material. Also in Los Angeles, 700 revelers attended "Hookah in the Sukkah 2006," a party at the Vanguard nightclub featuring a picture of a water-pipe on the promotional material. Tickets at the door cost $25. On the club's back patio stood a 10-foot-by-10-foot sukkah. Yesterday, a group of Jewish community activists were to hold a Sukkot party at a club in Portland, Ore. On the drinks menu: the Etrog Lemon Drop and the Sukkah-tini.

The etrog is a citron grown in northern Israel and elsewhere and is part of the observance of Sukkot. Avrom Fox, the owner of Rosenblum's World of Judaica in Chicago, says he has sold about 3,000 etrog this year. The fruit can cost between $40 and $200. "Some people are willing to spend a lot" for an etrog that is "perfectly shaped, like a jewel," he says.

Part of the allure of Sukkot is its festive tradition. Sukkot are meant to be welcoming -- just as Abraham sat outside his tent, looking for guests to invite in.

For newlyweds Jay and Kari Ceitlin, both 28 years old, Sukkot has presented the perfect opportunity for them to become closer to their religion, and to entertain friends at their home in Dallas. The Ceitlins' sukkah had the traditional elements but also hinted of nightclub decor: Harvest fruits and vegetables, including miniature pumpkins, hung from the roof of the lighted sukkah, casting shadows over the guests lounging on a brown and white polka-dot day bed and a plush couch with thick white pillows.

Musicians played songs like "All My Ex's Live in Texas" on their guitars until nearly 2 a.m. "It's important for Kari and me to establish a Jewish home and share that experience with our friends," says Mr. Ceitlin.

This year, for the first time, Dan Cohen, 37, built a sukkah outside his Piedmont, Calif., home. It's a place for festive family dinners with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. It's also an after-bedtime lair where he and his buddies can smoke Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and drink 1974 Glen Spey scotch. "I get to build a clubhouse for the first time in 30-plus years," he says.

For a bar mitzvah last year that took place during Sukkot, party planner Debbie Geller says she oversaw the construction of a sukkah that took up the back garden of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The structure was 60 feet by 40 feet and the walls were made of green organza. In the party's main room, floral arrangements were shaped like miniature sukkot.

In Far Rockaway, Queens, an architect and his father have decked out the family sukkah with hammocks, glass windows and a sculpture of city skyline made from cut bamboo. "It brings everything together -- my family, my religion and my artistic cravings," says Elliot Lazarus, 27.

Jassi Lekach Antebi, 24, says that last year she built a sukkah in her Golden Beach, Fla., yard in the hopes of impressing her fiance who was visiting from New York. With the help of hired handymen, she built the sukkah with fresh bamboo poles that were set in wood boxes and secured in concrete. The roof was made of palm branches and bamboo. From the roof, she hung glass globes with candles inside that glowed on the shimmering white gauze drapery that made up the sides of the sukkah. In all she spent about $5,000.

Some worry that commercializing Sukkot is contrary to the spirit of the holiday. Todd Stern, a vice president at Goldman Sachs in New York, says his sukkah, sitting on his driveway in White Plains, is decorated with artwork created by his nieces and his two-and-a-half-year-old son. Using duct tape, Mr. Stern attached a lamp to the roof of his sukkah so he and his friends can see their cards when playing "sukkah poker." Otherwise, his hut is fairly threadbare. "If you get too high end, I would be concerned that you miss that sense of being outdoors, of being exposed," he says.

People who put a lot of care into their sukkah say the purpose is not to be over-the-top but to create something beautiful as a family. Before marrying a Jew 12 years ago, Michelle Golland, a psychologist in Los Angeles, converted to Judaism from Catholicism. Dr. Golland, 37, embraced the religion fully -- even insisting on building a sukkah eight years ago despite her husband's initial lack of enthusiasm. Now it's a family tradition and evokes sentiments that transcend religion. Last year, as Dr. Golland was preparing to erect the prefab sukkah, her 4-year-old son ran up to her, wanting to know whether he could help hang the plastic fruits, vegetables, birds and orange raffia bows that always adorn the booth. "He was just like I was with Christmas when I was little," she says.

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