A Succah in Maine

by Roberta Chester (Bar Harbor, ME)

At the appointed time for Tashlich last year, I gingerly picked my way over the rocks along the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean in front of my home in Bar Harbor, Maine. It’s a ritual I repeat every year, yet somehow due to bad timing–-for which there is no excuse since the local paper publishes the daily tide tables–-it’s always at very low tide when I am perilously stepping over at least 75 feet of additional rocky shoreline.

At each step, as I walk over rocks slippery with seaweed and sharp with broken shells and crustaceans, my Tashlich prayers are preceded by my plea to Hashem to reach the water’s edge in one piece. It is a balancing act as I carry bread and siddur, charting my course along the rocks, and finally arrive at the water’s edge where I read the relevant prayers from my siddur and throw chunks of bread into the water as gulls flap their wings and swoop into the water eagerly devouring “my sins.” When I turn to leave, the tide is already coming in and licking at my feet.

Passersby along the shore stop to stare, wondering not why I am throwing bread to the gulls–that is not uncommon at all-–but why I would be reading at the same time. That exercise–-from which I breathe a sigh of relief after I have crawled on all fours over the sea wall that separates the rocks from the shore path without breaking a limb–-counts for some measure of penance.

The difference last year, as I walked along the path back to the house, was that I promised (and I spoke the words aloud) to have a succah in the coming year. During all the years I’ve lived here, I’d never performed the mitzvah of having my own succah, so this would truly be a “first,” and the prospect, though I had no idea how I would fulfill that promise, was very exciting.

The months passed, and, almost a whole year later, I had even more reason to have a succah since my daughter Lisabeth and her family, settled temporarily in New Rochelle, New York after leaving Tsfat, were counting on a succah when they came to visit Maine.

“Check out Succahdepot.com,” my daughter advised, and, suddenly, after a few clicks, a succah on the front lawn seemed definitely within the realm of possibility.

The web site gave me several choices, all of them quite expensive and some clearly beyond my means. I settled for one in the middle range that promised it was easy to set up. When I placed my order, I was assured the succah would arrive in two packages within a week, giving me enough time to set it up or find someone to help me.

“Make sure no trees are hanging over it,” my daughter reminded me, “so that it’s out in the open and we can look up and see the stars.”

The only place would be the front lawn, as close to the steps as possible, and near enough to an electrical outlet to have some light at night.

The first package arrived, and I was beginning to get anxious about the second when UPS delivered it to my door. Both cartons were so heavy, though, I couldn’t move them myself, and I sat on the front porch wondering who would set it up.  Finding someone who is handy is impossible here during the tourist season when all the carpenters are “straight out” (a Maine expression for over the top) with work. However, I was very fortunate that just then I had in residence at my Bed & Breakfast a man who assured me he would love to set up the succah. Lucky for me (a dyslexic in this area), his forte was spatial relations, so  I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.

His wife very kindly indicated she didn’t mind postponing a hike so he could help me, and I looked on with admiration as he tackled the task with skill and determination, and heard him say “it’s like a giant tinker toy.” Mindful of the wind in Maine which can easily undo much sturdier structures than a succah, he suggested that we secure the poles with croquet wickets.

I was so grateful, I deducted $50 from his bill and stood on the porch imagining the decorations my grandchildren could add to beautify our succah. White on three sides and totally open on the fourth, it was too pristine-–perfectly square and uninteresting–-to be  called a work of art like other succahs I had seen. But it looked beautiful to me as I stood on the porch admiring my investment  and not regretting a penny.

“But what about the skach,” my daughter insisted. “That’s the most important part. You need boards, she told me. Order a bunch of 1 x 2’s.”

The local building supply store only had 1 x 3’s, and the clerk was baffled when I explained what it was for. After several rounds with him, my architect daughter came to the rescue and ordered 12 foot lengths which would be just right for my 10’ by 10’ succah.  They arrived in a pile on the lawn, and I knew there was no way I could position them myself.

Fortunately, I received a call from Zachary Davis, a student at the local college whose parents were friends of the man who erected the succah. In no time the boards were up and he was gathering leafy boughs from the woods beside the house. Now it was really looking like a succah. I asked my daughter to bring a supply of crayons and anything else she could think of so my grandchildren could dress up the sides of the succah. The opening seemed too wide, and I thought a curtain would suffice and even provide some insulation from the wind. I had to admit, though, that the shower curtain with pink roses that I hung from the pole looked somewhat silly, so I scrapped that idea. Besides, as soon as Zachary and I moved in a table and chairs, it was beginning to look cozy.

My daughter and family were to arrive from NY late on Thursday, which would give the children time on Friday before Shabbat to work on this project.  I purchased a 100 foot electrical cord so we could have light in the succah. And optimistically hoping we might even be able to sleep in it, I bought a few sleeping bags that promised to keep us warm down to 15 degrees. I had a round brazier which might have kept us warm with a wood fire if we could have kept it in the succah, but I was advised against it for safety reasons. Even if it we couldn’t sleep in it, we certainly could eat in the succah.

As it turned out, though, the car my daughter and son-in-law bought (in what they assumed was perfect condition) needed major repairs. They called and said they wouldn’t be able to leave until after Shabbat for the ten hour drive to Maine and would arrive in the wee hours of the morning. My grandchildren would hardly be able to decorate the succah after the long trip, so I would have to do it myself. I enlisted the help of the girl who cleans the guest rooms (preferring to do that myself) and gave her a ladder, tape, scissors, and string to attach some bright, autumn leaves to the walls and hang gourds and squash of various shapes, sizes, and colors from the skach.

My succah still looked a bit barren, but it occurred to me that a grouping of family pictures would be a wonderful addition, All that was needed were some pieces of tape for photos of my grandchildren and their cousins.  Erev Shabbat, the succah was truly a magnificent vision on the lawn beneath the bright orange harvest moon suspended over the bay. I stood on the porch, pleased and grateful that I had been able to fulfill the mitzvah and my promise, and delighted that my family would be here. For the first time in many years I would not be alone here on Succoth. Motzei Shabbat, before I went to bed, I walked out to the head of the driveway and tied a bunch of balloons to the Shorepath Cottage sign.

About 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, my daughter and her family burst through the side door. I’d enjoyed their succah in Tsfat, and, having delighted in its artistry and comfort with couches and carpets, I was very anxious for their approval.  Here in Maine, the elements are definitely less amenable than in Israel; it might rain and even snow at this time of year. But they gave the succah their stamp of approval with the caveat that “this was definitely a Maine succah.”

Two hours later we were happily eating our breakfast in the sukkah, and the guests in the house were taking our pictures. For the next few days, thanks to a good supply of gloves, hats and fleece jackets, we were able to eat all our meals in the succah. Though it was cold, the days were bright and sunny. A reporter for the local newspaper heard about the succah and came to write a story, complete with an explanation of the lulav and etrog, and took our picture.

Like the holiday itself,  the visit was very sweet, but far too short.  My daughter and her family  had to return to their own succah and to visits with other relatives, and I waved goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway to begin their long drive back to New Rochelle. During the next few days, several members of the small Jewish community here in Bar Harbor came to eat gingerbread cookies and cider in the succah, and I managed to eat a few meals there, though it had gotten much colder and felt somewhat lonely.

Then, Thursday evening–-Chol Hamoed Succoth–-we had a huge wind out of the northeast, “a nor’easter.” Half asleep, I heard the doors and windows rattling and the wind chimes clanging on the porch. It was the kind of night that makes you want to bury yourself under the covers, which I did, suspecting that whatever was happening outside was nothing I could do anything about. It would be better not to look, and I was right.

When I awoke and peered out the window through the pouring rain, I saw, much to my dismay, that the wind had totally destroyed my succah. The walls had collapsed, and some of the poles were bent  (those croquet wickets were no match for the wind), and the table and all the chairs were overturned and tossed about like matchsticks. The lamp had fallen; even the glass fixture and the light bulbs were broken. It was as if some giant, willful child had stormed through the succah and stomped on it.

I e-mailed Zachary, who came to the rescue and salvaged what he could. The lamp was a “goner” but luckily nothing had ripped. He indicated there was a chance he could straighten the poles that had been bent out of shape by putting them in a vise and would let me know. It was a dismal morning, made even more so by the rain and the sight of what had been a succah and was now just a tangled mess. Remarkably, the family pictures, though wet, were ok.

Since then, I’m pleased to report, Zachary was able to straighten the poles, and beautiful pictures of the succah have arrived in the mail from the guests who were here during Succoth. The photo and accompanying story appeared in the local paper, and now the population of this little town knows something about our very beautiful and profoundly meaningful holiday, just as I learned the valuable lesson of Sukkoth–how temporary and transient are the works of our hands and how vulnerable.

Roberta Chester, a writer living half the year in Jerusalem and the rest of the year in Bar Harbor, ME, owns and operates The Shorepath Cottage, Maine’s only kosher B&B, which is often the site of writing workshops for women. Her website is www.shorepathcottage.com

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