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In awe of schach: Searching for the perfect sukkah covering

Caption: Palm fronds are a favorite form of schach for sukkahs in the Los Angeles area. (Edmon Rodman)

Caption: Palm fronds are a favorite form of schach for sukkahs in the Los Angeles area. (Edmon Rodman)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — His 14-foot-long pole saw in hand, Paul Nisenbaum is ready to head out into the great urban forest in a search for schach. The Los Angeles teacher and small businessman is among the many Jews throughout North America who will search their neighborhoods, from wilderness to city center, for a suitable sukkah roof covering.

With Sukkot, the holiday when Jews construct and live in fragile, temporary booths coming a few days after Yom Kippur, the hunt is on.

According to halachah, the schach should be something that once grew in the earth but is no longer attached to the earth. Once the schach is in place, most of the roof of the sukkah should be covered, with the test being that once inside, you see more shade than sun.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th Century leader of kabbalistic teaching, even taught there is a connection between schach and divine inspiration.

Mats made of bamboo seem to the norm in America, but for Nisenbaum and others, only something more directly connected to their environment will bring inspiration.

“I want the real thing,” said Nisenbaum, who long before the holiday scouts out suitable palm trees in his neighborhood. “While I’m walking to shul, I spot the good ones.”

Up north, in Fairbanks, Alaska, Randall Miller looks to the natural resources of his area for schach.

“We use local stuff from the forest,” he said. “Spruce boughs some years, and on others tall purple flowers called fireweed,” Miller said. “We use the long stalks which later in the season turn a purplish red.”

Miller, whose sukkah temperatures drop to between 30 and 0 degrees, added that “Sometimes at night we see the stars through the roof, other times the stars and the falling snow.”

In New York City, a national sukkah design contest called Sukkah City is challenging artists, architects, designers and sukkah enthusiasts to become halachically creative with sukkah design. Using Jewish law as well as city ordinance as design criteria, contest organizers Joshua Foer and Roger Bennett asked entrants for their sukkah visions.

Recently a panel named the 12 finalists whose sukkahs will be constructed in Union Square Park in the days before Sukkot. New Yorkers will vote and pick the winner, which will remain standing for the holiday as the “People’s Choice Sukkah."

Foer says for the roofs, “there are lots of possibilities beyond mats.” He noted that among the 600 entries, there were designs with roofs of “dried flowers, little pieces of wood veneer, fallen leaves” and one whose creators wanted to use an invasive species of grass.

One of the 12 finalists, Volkan Alkanoglu, a Los Angeles architect and teacher who had never before been in a sukkah, used rattan for schach for his entry titled “Star Cocoon.” The cocoon’s curved support structure will be made of cane.

Alkanoglu, who along with his team designed the sukkah on a computer, saw the unique materials and design parameters as a way “to bring people together.”

Beyond contests and foraging, many still love their mats — especially those who live in desert climates, where green schach quickly dries up and shrivels.

When Howard Scharfman of Tucson, Ariz., wants to search for schach in a desert region that he describes “as cactus and more cactus,” he visits his storage shed. Scharfman likes to use a woven bamboo mat to cover his sukkah, where he says temperatures average 100 degrees.

“It’s a renewable resource,” he said. “I can use it year after year.”

In the Midwest, one community is going to the farm for inspiration. East Side Veggies, a project of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in the Cleveland area, is selling bundles of green cornstalks harvested from nearby Geauga County for $10 a bunch.

“It’s not your typical bamboo matt covering,” said the schach sale coordinator, Matthew Fieldman. “The stalks are literally right from the field. This was alive not long ago, and it presents just a different atmosphere with nothing manufactured.

“We are supporting Jewish values by reducing our footprint,” added Fieldman, who used cornstalks the previous Sukkot for his own sukkah. “We are supporting local agriculture and supplying something that every part of the Jewish community can use.”

Fieldman says the cornstalks, which are some 6 feet in length, “long, lush and green,” are supplied by an Amish farming collective.

“They completely knew what Sukkot is,” Fieldman said. “They respect what we are doing.”

This year he ordered enough cornstalks for about 100 families.

The previous Sukkot, Fieldman observed that the stalks, which start green before gradually turning brown, reminded him of the transitional nature of Sukkot and of life.

“Once upon a time I used bamboo mats,” Fieldman said, but “then I met the farmers who grew this corn.”

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

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