By Lauren Markoe
Religion News Service
(RNS) If you're wondering why your Jewish neighbors built a hut in their yard, it's because the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot began Wednesday night (Oct. 12), a sort of Jewish Thanksgiving that lasts through Oct. 21.
The temporary hut is a "sukkah," a place to eat and even sleep during the weeklong holiday, and meant to remind Jews of the ancient Hebrews who wandered the wilderness after the exodus from Egyptian bondage.
Most observant Jews around the world spend hours building a sukkah that's big enough to host a full meal for family and guests. Any location under the open sky is considered kosher.
But what if you're a Jewish soldier serving in Iraq? Or a young Jew protesting on Wall Street? Or you live in New York City and have only a tiny balcony?
Enter the "PopUp Sukkah."
That's the choice of Daniel Sieradski, a Jewish man who is spending Sukkot agitating for social justice on Wall Street, and who lacks a city permit to erect a sukkah in occupied Zuccotti Park.
The 11-pound nylon PopUp Sukkah, which jumps out of its case and expands into a 6-foot-high tent, is likely Sieradski's best chance.
"I plan to be in the park as a protester, but I also plan to be in the park as a Jewish protester," Sieradski said. "My faith requires me to eat in the sukkah and sleep in the sukkah. It's going to be an interesting showdown with the police."
The commandment to spend Sukkot in the sukkah comes straight out of Leviticus: "Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your (ensuing) generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt."
"PopUp Sukkah," a Brooklyn company named for its signature product, donated Sieradski's sukkah, but not necessarily because the owners agree with the protesters' agenda. "I believe that any Jew anywhere should have a sukkah for Sukkot," said co-owner Yoni Raskin.
To that end, Raskin and his business partner, Mendy Cohen, have donated and sold PopUp Sukkahs to Jews serving in the Iraq war and serving time in prison. They have given them to rabbis leading services in countries such as the Congo, where only a handful of Jews live. And they've sent them to people in Manhattan, where space may allow only a sukkah big enough for two.
Then there are the people whose more traditional sukkahs -- either for a lack of time, building materials or skill -- just didn't turn out as planned.
"We get those calls too," said Raskin, whose smaller PopUp Sukkah sells for $199. The larger size, which can seat six, sells for $279. The company has sold more than 3,500 since 2005.
Scores of the portable sukkahs have gone to prisons where Jewish inmates have expressed an interest in celebrating a proper Sukkot (in the courtyard, not their cells). Wardens are often skeptical. But Rabbi Menachem M. Katz of the Aleph Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for Jews in the military and in prisons, said prison officials usually relent when he pops open a PopUp Sukkah.
"There are no nails or two-by-fours. There are no metal pipes that are going to become a weapon," Katz said. "If I had to pitch them a regular sukkah, I'd be dead in the water."
Within the military, Katz has an easier time getting his sukkahs to Jews who have requested them. "They're in Iraq. They're in Afghanistan. An Air Force base in Alabama," said Katz, whose organization pays for the sukkahs when the military doesn't.
PopUp Sukkahs have also found their way to central Africa, where Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila is an emissary of the traditionalist Lubavitch movement. He sends student rabbis to lead services for groups of Jews in Kenya, Ivory Coast and Gabon, and on Sukkot, he equips the students with a PopUp Sukkah.
"In a fraction of a second you have a ready sukkah to use," he said. "People can't decline an invitation to go in and make a blessing."
Sometimes, he said, a portable sukkah can provide an unexpected blessing.
One year, he said, two of his rabbinical students, stuck in horrendous traffic between two Nigerian cities, stopped by the side of
the road and popped out the sukkah for a coffee break. Two Nigerian policemen demanded an explanation and got a lesson about a holiday they had never heard of.
"The cops were so astonished," Bentolila said, "that they offered the boys an escort."
PopUp Sukkahs aren't the only portable sukkah on the market, though Raskin calls his "the original."
This year, for the first time, Brooklyn-based Sukkah Depot is offering a competitively priced portable sukkah for $199 -- the
"Carry-On" -- assembled with fiberglass poles in just a few minutes. More than 100 have been sold already.
"Demand is high," said Sukkah Depot manager Eitan Kwiat. "In general it's a solution for people who are traveling, for people who just moved, and don't want to buy a big sukkah. Or for people who just have a small porch."
Check out these photos from NYC's Sukkah City of 2010: