Voices from the field

An Act of Creating: Toys, Sukkahs and Grandpa Hymie

By Josh Feigelson

There is something awesome about building things. Not awesome in the merely cool sense of the word, but awesome in all of its religious splendor.

I confess: I marvel at the things I create—an article I write, a piece of Ikea furniture I build (okay, my wife builds it), the children who carry my chromosomes. There’s something simply amazing about the idea that that came out of me. I made that.

While this is a feeling that never goes away, it is particularly powerful in childhood. “Young children, especially, have enormous creativity,” said social psychologist Erik Erikson. Building, playing, creating, are the basic ways that children discover the world. Watch a toddler build a tower, observe a kindergartner write her first sentence, notice a 9-year old compose a song: there is something thrilling and marvelous in the act of creating. We stand in awe of the thing we create.

In the Torah, G-d, of course, is the Creator par excellence. Yet human beings are G-d’s images, and in building and creating we reflect G-d: we can think, design, plan, and use our power to make something where it didn’t exist before. When we are builders, when we are creative, we are being as close to G-d as we can be. No wonder we’re thrilled.

“A people is made by making. A nation is built by building,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The act of creating is not only a personal act, but a collective and communal one. When we build with other people, we build not only the object that we’re working on, but stronger relationships and richer communities. This is what it means to learn and grow together.

And that brings us to Sukkot. There is something thrilling, for children and adults alike, about taking poles and tarps and twine and sticks, and constructing a sukkah. We take these things, and with planning and effort and coordination, we create something that didn’t exist before. It is playful and purposeful. It is community-building. And it involves learning—even if we’re building our sukkah for the 45th time, the act of building requires us to remember what a sukkah is, what its rules are, and how to build it. The sukkah is one of the best educational toys around.

When I lived in Israel, I realized that Sukkot in many ways is like an Israeli version of Christmas in America. You can find vendors on street corners selling palm branches (instead of Christmas trees) to use as skach on the sukkah. Like families who decorate Christmas trees, Jewish families decorate their sukkot—with homemade paper chains and, if you’re like us, Christmas lights.

But for me, Sukkot also means toys. My grandfather, Hymie Berman, made educational toys. He named his company after my aunt, calling it the Judy Company. You might be familiar with the Judy Clock, which is still used in kindergarten classrooms today. The Judy Company made educational toys and games for children all over America.

Hymie also made toys just for his grandchildren, and one of them was a mini sukkah. I remember every year taking it out of its box, and building a table and chairs with legos, watching as my little lego people ate their sukkot meals inside.

The toy sukkah was as much a part of sukkot as our real sukkah. While I had a hand in creating the big sukkah, that was really the grownups’ work. As a child, I was too small to be of much help setting up the sukkah in the backyard. But thanks to my toymaking grandfather, who had the wisdom to realize the power of building and playing, I had my own sukkah to build.

An Educator's Backpack  goes along with this article.