Pine trees. That's what I think about each year as the Jewish festival of Sukkot approaches. The ancient holy day — it began Wednesday at sundown — was celebrated by the Children of Israel thousands of years ago to thank God for a bountiful harvest and to pray for God's blessings in the coming year.
Jews still ask for God's blessings during Sukkot, but also observe the holiday by building little huts — the simpler the better — symbolizing both the tents farmers would sleep in at harvest time and the temporary dwellings the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land.
There are all sorts of esoteric rules that have been compiled over the years detailing the correct way to fashion a sukkah. Jewish law specifies the huts must be big enough to hold "the head and most of the body" of a person, together with a table at which to eat; the walls must be strong enough to withstand a "normal wind" and can be made of wood, stone or even canvas over a metal framework; and the roof covering — known as sekhakh — must be made of cut vegetation, such as tree branches, bamboo shoots — or pine trees.
The problem, at least when I was a youngster growing up in the Land of Cotton in the early '60s, is that someone had to leave the comfort of their home, trek out into the woods, cut down a bunch of pine trees, drag them onto a truck, bring them back into the city, and toss the mess atop the communal sukkah at our synagogue, Shearith Israel, on Wynnton Road.
My father, who actually liked fresh air and loved telling me and my three brothers about the cow and chickens his family kept in their backyard when he was a child, turned this annual project into a family outing for years.
He would borrow a truck from the "Uneeda Glass Company" on the Sunday before the beginning of the festival, pile us and a few of our friends, along with some saws and axes, into the cab, and head west on Macon Road to Harry Kaminsky's farm — a gentrified house, surrounded by dozens of acres of woodland, dotted with rusted out cars and tractors, an aging barn and decaying fences; dusty dirt roads and sagging power lines.
For the next few hours we would play at being lumberjacks, whacking away at pine branches and saplings, piles of fallen debris and underbrush. The limbs and smallish trees were lugged over to the truck and piled high, resting uncomfortably between the sides of the vehicle, towers built to hold glass securely, not the makings of a sukkah.
The one real thrill of the outing came on the trip back to the city, as we sat atop the fragrant pine chunks, bouncing about joyfully whenever we hit a dip in the highway. It was all sort of a holiday roller-coaster and the admission was simply a bit of sweat.
By late afternoon we were back at Shearith Israel, climbing the metal framework of the permanent sukkah that we’d crown with our day’s work. The rest is a bit vague – someone would cover the sides with canvas and youngsters would decorate the expansive space with bits of fruit and drawings made during Hebrew school.
I know there were services we attended and recall that each year one of the highlights of the holiday was receiving a length of sugar cane – go figure! It all comes together sweetly now, a euphonic blend of Judaica, Paul Bunyanesque work and family tradition.
The sweetest memory, of course, is the stuff I disliked the most – tossing aside briars and banging away at sticky saplings that had a way of whipping across my arms and face.
I hated the work, but loved the company and would give almost anything this holiday to be able to spend a few additional sweaty hours with my father. He died over a decade ago. But Dad continues to hover about, especially when the days grow short, a chill fills the air and little huts start popping up across the Land of Cotton.