Temim Fruchter


“What’s the thing about the palm frond again?” Katelyn nudges me on our way up the front walk to Muriel’s door. It’s the first night of Sukkot, the Jewish festival of huts, and Muriel is hosting the lot of us – me, Mama, Papa, Rivki, Jamie, and I’ve brought Katelyn. For days, I’ve been preparing her for her first Jewish holiday with my family. How she won’t be allowed to speak after we wash our hands before eating the bread, how many times she’ll be asked to stand for a blessing, how to hold the citron without God forbid dropping it, who doesn’t like when you say what.

“There are a lot of things,” I say. “Don’t worry too much about the palm frond. Just follow my lead.”

“Okay,” she nods solemnly, like I’ve just given her instructions for a high-stakes heist. “Anything else?” We’re approaching the front step, and Katelyn’s switched to an urgent stage whisper.

“I mean, the obvious thing, which you know. We’re eating in a tent. It will be cold, but we’ll wear our coats through dinner and drink a lot of wine.” I pause. Katelyn is new but I still want her to know this one is important to me. “Also, that it’s my favorite.”

“I mean I know it’s your favorite.” Katelyn gives me that entreating all-eyebrows face that makes her look like a Hanson brother circa 1996.

“But promise me you won’t let my glass get empty? I’m very cold-blooded.”

“Charmer,” I whisper. “Be good.” I don’t know exactly what I mean as it comes out of my mouth, but I know that I am both flirting and also, at some level, that I mean it.

My family catches up behind us and we arrive at Muriel’s stoop.

Muriel greets us, fills the doorframe with her width, ruddy-cheeked from both the oven and the outdoors. “So this must be Katelyn,” she says, whipping off her yellow apron, eyes fixed on me as she exaggeratedly raises and drops her eyebrows over a well-lipsticked smirk. Muriel has the subtlety of a fairy godmother. Katelyn reaches out a hand to shake Muriel’s and Muriel, in response, pulls both Katelyn and me into a fleshy-armed embrace, our faces jointly smushed against her chest. “I’m so glad to meet you. Anyone who makes my Sarahleh so happy.” I blush, but thankfully, my face against my cousin’s clavicle, no one can see me, not even Katelyn.

Muriel ushers us out to the sukkah, the hut in question. It’s even more beautiful than it is any other year, because this year, I’m watching Katelyn, big-eyed, take it all in. The walls of the sukkah are a dark green canvas, pulled taut over the wooden frame that Muriel, who, for our family, has always been mystifyingly handy, built by herself. The upper interior of the sukkah is strung with tiny lights, and there are small multicolored paper lanterns hung from the middle, issuing a diffuse, warm glow. The beams along the top are festooned with bunches of plastic fruit, tiny bundles of dried flowers in burgundies and ambers, wreaths of leaves, and garlands of beads and pompoms. An exuberance of color. The canvas is hung with tapestries, and, along one wall, a collection of laminated cards bearing blessings and liturgical excerpts, lovingly safety-pinned to the canvas, quivering when prompted by the wind. Muriel’s table takes up the whole middle of the tent, sparkling with festivity. The cream white tablecloth, the gleaming silverware, the slender wineglasses standing ready. The soft ceramic plates nestled in one another, the silver ritual cups – passed down from Muriel’s mother, Mama’s aunt – dotting the table, and a large bouquet of orange flowers at the center. I save the looking up for last. And then, ceremonially, I dip my head back. My favorite part has always been the deliberate crisscross of the bamboo ceiling, the whole assemblage designed to be holey enough to let the starlight through. The porous ceiling – a hodgepodge of bamboo stalks in a variety of lengths and widths – is crowned by an embarrassment of greenery, brambling vines and lengths of feathery willow. I marvel at it, how I somehow feel at once sheltered and exposed. It’s a barely-barrier. It’s the sky coming in. It makes me feel like, at le