“Ok, Frommer, what’s your Religious Support Plan for the feast of Suck-it?” I almost laughed, but when a superior officer asks you a serious question in the U.S. Army, that’s usually not the best response. Every year, Jews around the world build and dwell in temporary booths called sukkot, just as our biblical ancestors did on their journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel. In 2012, as the only Jewish chaplain stationed in Kuwait, the festival of Sukkot was clearly in my Area of Responsibility, and as the first cantor ever to serve in military chaplaincy, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be the last. “Sir, I’ll make sure the Jewish soldiers have the sukkah they need,” I answered smartly. It was a plan as simple as it was foolproof, except for one tiny detail. I had no idea how I was going to do it.
Perhaps I might have been more prepared if I’d grown up like everyone else I seemed to meet in the Army—on a farm in the Midwest, chopping down trees and handcrafting pigpens. As it happened, my childhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan involved plenty of construction, but mostly with Lincoln Logs and Lego sets, and always following the directions. One year my family actually tried to assemble a life-size sukkah at our summer home in Claverack and though we never completed the project, we became too emotionally attached to our modest progress to ever dismantle it. The PVC pipes of our unfinished attempt remained in the backyard for a decade, standing amidst plant growth like some ancient ruin, silently waiting for UNESCO to arrive and add it to the World Heritage List.
During my undergraduate years at Yale and my cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College, I could always count on Jewish institutions like my synagogue or my roommate, Joshua Foer, to design some magazine-worthy sukkah with a floating roof, that I could enjoy for nothing more than a contribution to the potluck. It wasn’t until I joined the Army and the festival coincided with my unit’s pre-deployment exercises at Fort Irwin, CA, that I found myself cut off from these usual communal sources of construction. My holiday observance was saved at the last moment by the miraculous discovery of extra folding tables and wooden beams, which I cobbled together with some thorny desert brush to create the most unstable and hazardous sukkah since the Talmud described how to build one on the back of a camel. I would need to considerably improve my efforts in Kuwait, where the lack of combat had spawned an inversely proportional obsession with safety regulations.
I first paid a visit to the Department of Public Works to see if their engineers could support my efforts. I was greeted by a jovial sergeant the size of Paul Bunyan who knew all about “sukkahs” from previous deployments to Iraq. “I’ll need it by September 30th,” I explained. “WHY THAT’S RIGHT WHEN I LEAVE COUNTRY—HO HO HO!” he boomed. “BUT DOOON’T WORRY—MY REPLACEMENT ARRIVES A WEEK BEFORE, SO I’LL MAKE SURE HE’S SPUN UP ON ALLLLLL THE DETAILS!” It was hard for me to share his optimistic outlook. The transfer-of-authority period between incoming and outgoing units was usually pretty unsettled, with the former still learning basic info like which latrine overflowed the fastest and the latter already halfway out the door. It seemed unlikely that my sukkah, sitting somewhere in Annex Z of DPW’s priority schematic, would be remembered for merit during such a chaotic time.
I returned to the chapel to prepare for services, already nervously contemplating what I would say to my supervisor when DPW’s sukkah failed to materialize, and wondering if perhaps I could order enough Legos on Amazon to build the thing myself.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. “Is this where the Jewish services are?” the visitor asked. “The flyer said they’d start here in fifteen minutes.” His uniform indicated that he belonged to a new engineering company that had just arrived. My very own deus ex machina.