- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Dr. Sander Mendelson and his wife, Adina, give up having meals in the comfortable, spacious dining room of their Bethesda home for one whole week every year to have dinner outside in a small temporary shed.They don't do this because they're having work done on their dining room or because they especially like eating dinner in their down jackets on cool or even cold October evenings. They do it because they're Jewish and each year they celebrate Sukkot the festival of tabernacles.

"There is a lot of introspection during the high holidays [such as Yom Kippur], but Sukkot has always been a joyous time," says Dr. Mendelson, a cardiologist at Washington Hospital Center.

Sukkot falls right after Yom Kippur a time of purity and atonement and serves several purposes. It commemorates the Jews' Exodus from Egypt, during which they lived in temporary dwellings for many years.

It also is a modern version of ancient harvest festivals, says Tzipora Sofare, director of Jewish family living and learning at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.

"We are commanded to dwell in the sukkah, but most people just take their meals there," Ms. Sofare says. "And there are people who indeed sleep in their sukkah." Sukkot is mentioned in Leviticus 23.

Sukkah, which means booth, is the singular of sukkot, which also is the name of the holiday.

Though the Mendelsons don't sleep in their sukkah anymore, Dr. Mendelson remembers spending the night in the structure when he was a young boy. His family has used the same sukkah since 1938, when Dr. Mendelson was 4 years old.

"One of my earliest memories was banging nails in it," he says.

The main guideline for the sukkah structure is that it should have at least three walls and an open ceiling so the "dwellers" can see the stars.

In Israel, many restaurants have sukkot outside the main dining area so people can adhere to the tradition even when they are dining out, Ms. Sofare says.

"And many apartment buildings are terraced so that people can build sukkot on their balconies and see the stars," she says.

Some sukkot have solid walls, but the Mendelsons' consist of trellises that allow the family and friends to see the surrounding magnolia, tulip and beech trees. The trellis design also has more wind resistance than a solid structure, Dr. Mendelson says.

The Mendelsons often invite their children and grandchildren to decorate the sukkah with pine cones, sukkah lights (what Christians would call Christmas lights), fruits and vegetables, coconuts and Spanish moss.

The structures come in all sizes, and some are available on the Internet in prefabricated versions that take as little as an hour to assemble.

The Mendelsons' sukkah is 8 feet long and 8 feet wide and seats up to 10 persons. They use outdoor furniture in the sukkah because it sits outside, rain or shine, for a week.

On top of the structure, the Mendelsons lay ladders on which they place evergreens, which make up the "roof" or "s'chach." The purpose of the evergreens is that they, as opposed to other leafy plants, stay fresh without watering during the entirety of the celebration.

"You don't want leaves that wilt. That's not very festive," says Adina Mendelson, who works as a career counselor.

Festive it should be. While all participants pray before each meal, much of the emphasis is on having fun.

"It's actually a lot of entertaining that week. We might have dinner here three nights and then we have dinner out a few times," Mrs. Mendelson says. "This can be very meaningful in bringing the community together."

No special foods are required for the holiday other than for everyone to make an effort to eat an unusual fruit, such as pomegranate.

The Mendelsons normally have the traditional twisted bread and wine with the meals, and Mrs. Mendelson says she often prepares hearty dishes because it's fall and often cool outside. She might make bean soup or beef Burgundy, she says.

In the prayer portion of the celebration, the participants use palm, myrtle, willow and citron a fruit resembling a lemon.

Sukkot come in all sizes. Dr. Mendelson has made a sukkah out of a crate for his 98-year-old mother, who lives in Northwest, so she can keep her celebration of the Sukkot tradition intact even though she doesn't have the energy to build one anymore.

Some people even have smaller sukkot on their balconies and patios.

However, there are those who don't have enough space or time to build a sukkah. They can go to communal sukkot, which are constructed at synagogues and Jewish community centers across town.

At Georgetown University last Sunday, a dozen students were busy building and decorating a communal sukkah with fresh fruit, lights and stars of David made out of pipe cleaners in anticipation of the holiday.

"[Sukkot] is a religious obligation, so having the sukkah here helps the students fulfill that obligation," says Ruth Golmant, Jewish program coordinator for the Campus Ministry at the university.

David Gold, president of the university's Jewish Student Association, plans to have meals in the sukkah at least twice during this week.

"The entire community appreciates the fact we have it," Mr. Gold says. "It means a lot for us to celebrate our holidays, and hopefully we will have representatives from other religions, too."

After several days during Yom Kippur of reflection on the recent world violence and recent verbal threats against Muslim students at Georgetown, Mr. Gold says he's ready for the sense of community and togetherness that Sukkot brings.

"We shift from the phase of reflection into a more joyful atmosphere, and it's really needed, especially now," Mr. Gold says. "People need to relax and feel better."

This year, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some may find it irresponsible or just awkward to observe Sukkot, a time of celebration and feasts.

The Mendelsons disagree.

"Life has to go on. Even during the dark days of World War II, people built sukkot. You have to continue to be happy," Dr. Mendelson says. "We know there is more shadow than sun [in life], but we can't be fixated on it."

After a few moments of silence, Mrs. Mendelson says, "And you can't ever postpone your life."

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