It gives me goosebumps to look at these old family photos in the sukkah at 11 Bowbazaar, my great-grandparents' and grandparents' home, where my father was born and grew up, and also at 81/8 Bentinck Street, where my immediate family lived. My father and my sister Flora are featured in the first photo (he's teaching her something, as usual!), followed by a photo of the family (well, the men, anyway) singing and reading the night away. The Musleahs lived on the second floor of 11 Bowbaazar, and the sukkah was built on the verandah. The frame of the sukkah stayed up all year. The roof was made out of palm leaves, which are very large and flat, and so can be woven together into mats. A variety of fruits hung from the roof--grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, even pineapples! Purple, blue, green, yellow and white glass lanterns (fanous) decorated the arches, as did balloons in matching colors; strings of colorful electric lights (we didn't worry about the December Dilemma), and shiny crinkly papers called chunchuns that streamed in the breeze. From the street below, you could see the sukkah ablaze with light and beauty from blocks away.
When we moved to Philadelphia, we lived in an urban neighborhood and there was no place for a sukkah. Our new synagogue, Mikveh Israel, had a glorious sukkah that the congregation spent days decorating with strings of cranberries, beans, and other harvest vegetables. I remember the petit fours that were specially served for kiddush! At home, we tried to replicate the feeling of the Calcutta Sukkot celebration by singing many beautiful and beloved pizmonim: Sukkah V'lulav, Et Dodim Kallah, Ha'él Ha'ira U'réh, and my father's favorite, Yisrael Am El/Yotzer Or Bahir. He always reminded us that once, while he was singing Yotzer Or Bahir (Creator of Bright Light), he could suddenly see the dazzling orb of the moon rising on the east side of the sukkah.
May our own sukkot be filled with such luminous splendor!
Listen to the song here:
From Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India.
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Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.