In the four years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve lived in eight houses. It’s done something to my psyche: I never buy any item, whether it’s a pair of shoes or a bottle of vegetable oil, without mulling whether it’s worth packing it up and moving it when I inevitably uproot myself again. Every time I face the dreaded question — “And are you still at the same address?” — I have a minor emotional crisis at the library or the doctor’s office or the CVS checkout line.
In the past 20 years, my parents have had the same sukkah, a temporary hut made of wooden boards and forest-green plastic that they assemble once a year to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot, which commemorates the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert to the promised land, has always been my favorite holiday — better than Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July or Hanukkah. Since I was a small child I have loved this odd fall harvest festival that commands Jewish families, generally not known as outdoorsy types, to go out in their back yards and build a hut.
My latest D.C. group house, where I’ve lived for four months, has many faults. But I recognized one of its strongest points from the day I moved in, when my favorite holiday was still months away: It has a back yard. For the first time in my adult life, I could have my own sukkah.
My parents started putting up that forest-green sukkah at our house in Pennsylvania back when I was in elementary school. Year after year, my siblings and I decorated it, ate meals in it, did our homework in it and, on one or two magical nights every fall, slept outside in it. But now we’re all 20-somethings, and we’re scattered across the country, much too far apart from each other, and my parents told me they wouldn’t be putting up the sukkah on their own. So I asked for it. They drove it down and helped me drill it together in my D.C. back yard. The sukkah, this year, is mine.
I woke up this morning on the first day of Sukkot, lying on my back on the cold ground. I watched dawn break through the slatted bamboo roof above me. I felt the stiffness in my shoulders and the chilled damp point of my nose. And I felt something I haven’t felt in a long time in the spaces that I live in: I felt at home.
This sukkah, this hut that we Jews build each fall and carry our casserole dishes and our sleeping bags into — this is the home we carry with us.
This cold ground beneath my back might be only the latest patch on the Earth on which I find myself, but this holiday lets me feel it under me all week long, assuring me of my own tiny but real place in the world.
This green tarp wrapped around the walls of this dwelling place, the only flimsy screen between me and the outside world, is what my family handed down to me, the love that they wrap around me however far apart we are.
This bamboo roof trembles with the laughter of my friends who helped me tie it on top of the hut; over the course of nightly potluck dinners this week, it will shelter more than 50 friends, the community I’ve worked so hard to build here in this strange land.
This sleeping bag reminds me of all my neighbors who truly have no home; while I slept outdoors voluntarily last night, a staggering 7,473 people spent the same night in this same city with no choice but a homeless shelter or a cold night outside.
This mezuza that we drilled to the doorway invites in my Jewish ancestors, who carried this same temporary house with them through hardships I can scarcely imagine, who had the wisdom to nurture this ritual that would someday be exactly what I needed.
This sky above me tells me in the voice of the day’s first birdsong that I’m in the presence of God.
There’s a heartbreaking poem that’s been circulating this week, after the carnage in Las Vegas. A mother, struggling to raise her children in our grievously damaged society, concludes, “I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real s—hole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Good bones. The wooden frame around me, just a board at each corner marking out 12 feet by 8 feet of chilly air and morning dew and sunlight and music and laughter. When the world is broken, these are the bones of the home I carry with me.
The bones of my home are family and friends and faith. Someday, I will build flesh on these bones, and most of the time, I want that day to hurry up and get here. Someday my home will be a place where I live longer than a few months — longer than years, maybe longer than decades. Someday my home will be filled with family again. Someday I’ll lead my children out into the yard, where they’ll drill a screw into these wooden bones and hang paper chains.
Until then, I will carry this home with me. And I will trust this tradition to carry me home.