The Inside-Out Sukkah

I am lucky: I live on the third-floor apartment in a neighborhood rich with brunch spots, bars, schools, and thrift stores, and I can still see the stars. I can always glimpse at least a few wavering stars between the rooftop of the rowhouse across the street and the overhang of my balcony. This moment usually occurs at dusk, when I like to sit outside and enjoy the warm fall weather, thinking of ways I could climb on top of the roof but knowing I am too cowardly to do so.

When I first moved into my apartment, I lamented the lack of a backyard. The concept that I would not have access to the earth, even the crumbling, gravel ridden soil of West Philly, seemed foreign, especially coming from Florida, where my former one-story home stubbornly squatted in the swampland surrounding it, dirt creeping up its walls and onto the window screens. I liked the idea of having a spot of land I could place a lawn chair on, where I could nestle beneath an elm tree and marvel at the shadows of buildings above me. The balcony sufficed, though the material beneath my feet was slightly corroded and paint chips occasionally floated down from the roof.

I sit on my balcony often, reading, eating, or talking with friends. The open sides keep me cool on warm nights and the roof, with a garland of lights wrapped around its interior frame, keeps the rain and sun at bay. Though the balcony is connected to my apartment, it makes me feel differentiated somehow. I feel more at ease, more pensive, when I sit on my folding chair and look out on the street below.

As Sukkot, my favorite holiday, drew nearer, I began to wonder about the role of my balcony in my Sukkot celebration. It seems counterintuitive to build a Sukkah on the balcony, though it is my only “outdoor space”—stars could be seen only by looking out, not up, as a traditional Sukkah calls for. I could hang boards or sheets from the roof, but then I would have an enclosed space, with no room to look upon the world outside. I decided to leave my balcony be, but decorate it with gourds, garlands of paper, and autumn leaves hung from bits of string. I crisscrossed string lights in the interior of the roof like a pattern of symmetrical stars. I placed chairs and cushions around the edge, a stained picnic blanket in the center as a makeshift tablecloth, and propped open the screen door into my apartment as a symbolic gesture of welcome. (A gesture my roommate Chandler quickly disavowed, as it would let bugs in.)

Sukkot is a holiday to celebrate the harvest, and though I am three stories above the earth, I celebrate my own harvest: a place to live, groceries in my fridge, a job, peaceful neighbors, a laundromat down the street. Sukkot is a time to relish in the joy of community, to invite guests and strangers as a part of the family. I know a total of five people in Philadelphia, only one of them Jewish, so I invite them over via Facebook to a “Sukkot Harvest Dinner,” with the promise that I will cook whatever I can for a small crowd on a limited budget and not enough plates. I tell them all to bring wine, and their own forks.

For a holiday that is already unconventional in many regards—making the comforts of home new again by erecting a temporary shelter and sleeping in it in the unpredictable October weather, celebrating for eight days straight, dipping challah in honey like nobody’s business—my version does not seem too heinous. After all, I live in a bustling city—hardly anyone around me has a backyard with space for a sukkah to spare.

Yet on the night of my Sukkot dinner, I glanced at my neighbor’s yard, an overgrown concrete space with bricks and weeds in a tango around the edges. I look at my balcony-sukkah, at the lights and ornaments, at the passerby staring adamantly at the sidewalk in front of him. My version of Sukkot, my inside-out sukkah, strikes me as a bit pathetic. A Sukkot celebration I am forced to have because there are no other options. Past my neighbor’s roof, there is an early evening star glinting on the horizon. I suddenly think—what if every star I’ve seen from this spot has been a low-flying plane? The thought is laughable, and fills me with relief. Balcony, sukkah, star, plane—what does it matter?

I’m a 21st century Jew—I’ve adapted to customs crafted and altered to circumstance over hundreds and thousands of years. I’m just another blip on the calendar of tradition, a small figure on a balcony-sukkah adorned with lights and soon to be filled with the laughter of friends.