“A Sukkah Memory”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Growing up as one of the few Yeshiva students in the East Bronx in the early 1950s was not easy. My non-religious Jewish friends mocked my kippah, and neither my Jewish or non-Jewish friends could pronounce my given name, Ephraim. So they called me “Fry him in the frying pan!”

Living in an apartment building in a neighborhood that was changing, there were few play areas where a kid could escape. One of the few locations of tranquility was the back yard of our local “Shtiebel” (a synagogue built in a private house, owned by a private Rebbe). It was in that back yard, filled with shards of glass and other rubbish, that we cleared away a little part near the fence to build our club house, where we would go for solitude and camaraderie.

Each year, after the High Holidays, we would look forward to helping the Rebbe build the synagogue Sukkah and his own personal Sukkah, the first in the back yard, the second on the Rebbe’s 2nd floor porch. It was always exciting to put up the walls, place the final bamboos on top, and then decorate the walls with torn curtains from the Holy Ark and used velvet table covers with large Jewish stars.

My father, Moshe Buchwald, of blessed memory, an immigrant from Biayla, Poland, who worked first as a sign painter, and then as a jeweler, was a true artist at heart. He even left his children several haunting portraits that he had painted in his youth. When he saw the synagogue Sukkah, he recoiled at the drab curtains and the torn cloths, and decided to take matters into his own hands. So, during the year, he shopped around every bargain store and odd-lot shop looking for decorations. In those days, there were no specially manufactured Sukkah decorations. In fact, the only decorations that could be found, were the ones used to celebrate the birth of “the little boy in Bethlehem.”

You can imagine the surprise of the Chasidic Rebbe and his family when they walked into the Shtiebel’s Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot and found flashing lights, tinsel, large gold and silver balls hanging from the bamboo roof, as ornaments in their Sukkah.

Now Jewish law states that once the Sukkah ornaments are up, they are “Muktsah” and may not be touched until the conclusion of the holiday. So, the Chasiddim of Honeywell Avenue and East 179th Street in the Bronx had eight days to get used to the “Christmassy” ornaments of their Sukkah. True, I was only a kid then, but if my memory serves me correctly, after a week of living in the Sukkah, the decorations actually grew on the Sukkah dwellers, and by the end of the holiday the complaints had ceased.

I still don’t understand why, during the construction period the following year, the Rebbe’s family went to great lengths to make certain that no one “unauthorized” put up any decorations?

May you be blessed.