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Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Labor of Love My Aba’s Succah©

Inspiration by Vardah Littmann

Where Succahs are a Rarity

My Aba, a”h, had a special connection to Succos since he was born on that Yom Tov. Already at the beginning of chodesh Elul he would start the building of his succah. Now you need to understand that in South Africa of 50 or 60 years ago, Succos was not a holiday that was celebrated by most of the Jewish population. In Johannesburg, where we lived, the shuls had large communal succahs, but private succahs were few and far between. For instance, on our street which was at least a mile long and had spacious houses with enormous gardens inhabited mostly by Jews, there were exactly two succahs – an old man’s who lived with his children and my Aba’s.

When my Aba built his succah, it was with his whole heart mand being, not to mention large amounts of
time and money. My Aba’s succah was so famous for its beauty that Hebrew teachers (who were the ones who were supposed to give over Yiddishkeit) would bring their pupils to show then what a succah was.

There was a large space between the wall of the garage and the wall of the house. That was where Aba built the sukkah. The house wall contained a very large kitchen window. Here Aba placed a photo copy the whole parshah of Succos on clear fiber glass, and it covered the whole window. Beneath the window was a strip of garden with fragrant smelling plants and glorious blooms. The rest of the area was paved and was so large, that even though there was a sunken area in the farthest corner next to the garage wall, the succah area still had place for a bed and a table that seated our family and many, many

The sunken area was at the foot of a door to a storage shed with steps leading down to it. In this spot Aba placed many lush, verdant potted plants. In its center was a small fountain on a little table. The verse “ U’shavtem mayim b’sasson mi maynay ha yeshuah” was painted in large letters on a white plastic board that filled the doorway.

Date Palm Branches

Although we had some large date palms in our garden, most years Aba would not cut their branches, as that would have stunted the trees. Palms should only be cut back very infrequently. Instead Aba would knock on doors of homes in whose gardens he saw large palms that badly needed a trim, and he would offer to prune the trees for free. He explained that he needed the branches for religious purposes. The homeowners, even non-Jews, always gladly agreed.

After the cutting off operation, Aba would tie the branches to the carrier on top of his car and bring them home. He needed a tremendous number of branches as his sukkah was so large. Johannesburg covers many, many square miles; Aba would go from end to end to find different trees each year.

Silver Papers, Empty Eggs, and Candle Wax

Did I say that Aba started building his succah in Elul? That is not quiet accurate. The truth is that the whole year Aba was getting ready to build his succah. In those years in each box of cigarettes that you bought, there was a piece of shiny silver, copper, or gold (and sometimes other colored) paper. Aba saved these papers all year. As a child, I remember how excited he was mwhenever he found a pretty paper in a box of cigarettes. Aba used these papers to make wings for birds made out of eggs, which he used to hang from the schach among abundant winding chains of stimulated tropical fruit and exotic flowers.

During his childhood in Poland, Aba had learned to remove the contents of an egg by making tiny holes on either end and blowing it out, thus leaving the shell whole. He painted these empty eggs gold and then formed their heads out of candle wax. He had a special red sealing wax that came in a small thin block, which he heated in the open gas flame in order to join the head of the bird to its body.

Peaches , Plastic Daisies, and Colored Lights

Aba was always thinking about how to beautify his succah. He had heard that there were artificial fruits that looked real and were unattainable in South Africa. When some relatives were preparing for a trip abroad - I can’t remember if it was to America or China, he asked them to buy some for him. Until today, I have the imitation peach they brought in my breakfront. It looks so real that one of my children once bit into it, and the little tooth marks are clearly visible.

When I first came to Israel, in 1972, I saw a chain of colorful plastic daisies in a store in the old bus station in Tel Aviv. They looked like something Aba would like to have in his succah, and I brought them. Yes, the succah was important to Aba, but it was important to us too. I still use those pretty flowers in my own succah.

As children, we were enchanted by the sparkling, glittering, and glistening Xmas decorations that filled many counters in the stores. We would beg Aba to buy them, pointing out how they could enhance the succah. Aba refused over and over again to allow such fixtures in his succah. He did have colored lights, but he made them by painting over ordinary light bulbs. He also bought colored lights used by simcha halls that had no “smell” of the goyishe holiday.

An Expression of Artistry and Ahavas Hashem

Aba grew up as a young orphan, all alone in South Africa, with no mother or father, yet he devoted his considerable artistic talents to his love of Succos and HaShem. He bought a wood cutting machine operated by a foot pedal to make his succah decorations. Each decoration illustrated a different passuk from the Tanach about Succos which was engraved on a wooden board with perfectly formed letters.
Each panel was fitted into a box with slates so it could be removed and returned with ease. The boxes contained colored lights and papers. The verses seemed to be filled with magical colored light. He also etched out a board illustrating all of the Ushpizin.

As a child, I always felt like I was walking into Gan Eden when I walked into Aba’s completed succah masterpiece on Yom Tov. It wasn’t until many years later, though, that I really started to appreciate the succah for more than its physical beauty.

I remember once meeting an old lady. She was wearing a wig which was a rarity in South Africa in those days. Her sons Mitzie and Zelig had been Aba’s friends. I was about sixteen and did not understand fully the significance of what she told me: “Your Aba was such a good boy; he held on to Yiddishkeit against all odds. I have one of the succah decorations he made. I would not sell it for all the money in theworld.”


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