Example Story: The Sukkah Mystery

by Debra Zaslow

The Sukkah Mystery by Debra Zaslow from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning

Once, long ago, there was a young couple who were truly in love. They decided to be married in the Autumn under the canopy of the sukkah in the presence of their friends and relatives. When the time came, they invited the Ushpizin, the ancestors, and said their vows with the full moon peeking through the schach that lined the sukkah roof.

After the ceremony the guests came forth to offer gifts and blessings to the couple. Suddenly a stranger stepped forward. He had a long full beard, a lined face and rumpled clothes. Everyone was puzzled. “He must be from another town, ” they murmured to each other. “Probably traveling through.”

The man spoke to the bride and groom. “Because your love is so true I have a special gift for you.” He held out a smooth round gourd that gleamed in the soft light. “This gourd is magic,” he said. “It contains a wish, but only one wish. So you must use it very wisely and carefully. Don’t waste it.” The guests stared at the strange man as he continued.

“The wish must be made in the autumn when the moon is full. Come into the sukkah and speak to the ancestors. Then together, agree on your wish before you make it.” The strange man handed them the gourd, and before they could thank him, he was gone. They hung the gourd in the center of the sukkah, where the moonlight gave it a special glow.

It so happened that a greedy man among the guests overheard the story about the magic gourd. That night he snuck into the sukkah in the wee hours of the morning, stole the gourd and replaced it with another that looked identical, but was as empty of wishes as the air.

On the way home in his wagon, he was so excited thinking about how the gourd would make him rich that he forgot to look where he was going. He drove his wagon off the road into a mud hole where its wheels became hopelessly stuck. The more he tried to get out, the deeper he sank. Finally in desperation, he yelled, “I wish I was out of this mess!” Instantly he was on dry land, and the single wish was wasted and gone forever.

Meanwhile the young couple started their life together. When the winter rains came, they brought the gourd into their home to keep it protected throughout the year. In the autumn they hung it in the center of their sukkah, thinking, of course, that it still contained a wish.

Everything went well for them for a few years, but after awhile their business began to fail, and they had trouble making ends meet. That year on the first day of Sukkot the woman turned to her husband and said, “I think it’s time to use our wish. If we could only get on our feet financially, I think everything would fall into place.” Her husband agreed.

That evening they went into the sukkah and sat for a while in the stillness. Then they welcomed the ancestors, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. They invited the spirits of their grandparents, and all those who had come before them. When they felt their presence, they spoke to the ancestors silently. When it was time to make their wish, they placed their hands on the gourd.

The husband spoke. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe if we concentrate on our work and work together, a little harder, we can make a go of it without wasting this wish. We might really need it later.” His wife nodded. So, that night they ate dinner in the sukkah under the stars, without using the wish.

From that moment on they concentrated on working together and working harder, until business began to improve. After a time they were earning plenty of money to get by. A few years passed and one day the husband said to his wife, “There is only one thing missing from our life.” She knew just what he meant—a baby. So again they entered the sukkah on the full autumn moon and sat in silence. They invited all the ancestors, and waited until the Sukkah filled with the holiness of those who came before them. When they put their hands on the gourd, ready to make the wish, the wife spoke. “You know, I think we should be patient. Perhaps if we pray for a child, we may be blessed with one. Who knows? We might really need the wish another time.” And her husband agreed.

And so they prayed for a child and waited patiently, and eventually they were blessed with a baby. A few years later another baby arrived, and then another. And the children grew up, and the man and woman grew old. One day the wife turned to her husband and said, “I think it's time to use our wish.” He nodded, for he knew the only thing she would wish for--to be young again, to live forever.

So they went into the sukkah where the gourd hung in the glow of the moon. They invited the ancestors and sat quietly with them in the soft light. When they put their hands on the gourd and looked into each other’s eyes, they both shook their heads and said, “Not yet.” For in the moonlight they had realized that their love would live forever, just like the spirits of their ancestors. “Who knows, maybe someday, we’ll really need that wish.”

They went back in the house, and grew older. Eventually the husband passed away and his wife followed soon after. Their children kept the gourd and then passed it on to their children, who passed it to their children, through the generations.

Many years later when their great-great grandchildren were decorating the sukkah, one of them unearthed the gourd and called to her brother. “Look at this old gourd. I think there was some kind of story to it.” They passed it back and forth.

“His sister said. “ I remember grandma told me it was a wedding present to her grandparents. She said it was magic and it had a wish.” The great granddaughter shook the gourd and handed it to her brother.

“Feels empty now. They must have used it up.” They laughed. Then he held the gourd to his ear. “This is strange… you can hear something inside,” he said. “Kind of like a sea shell.” He handed it to his sister.

She held it to her ear. “ It’s sounds like the wind, or like whispering voices.”

His eyes widened. “Maybe it still has magic.”

They hung it carefully in the center of the sukkah, and that night when they invited in the Ushpizin, the sukkah filled with the quiet voices of the ancestors as the gourd shone with light of the moon.

BUY NOW Volume 1: Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning

BUY NOW Volume 2: New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family

Author bio and story provenance:

Debra Gordon Zaslow met Peninnah Schram at CAJE in1988, and has been inspired to tell Jewish stories ever since. She received Smicha as a Maggidah from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 2000. She teaches storytelling at Southern Oregon University and her CD, Return Again, contains Jewish stories of healing and transformation. Since completing her MFA in writing in 2004, she has published numerous stories and articles, including her memoir, Bringing Bubbe Home (White Cloud Press 2014).

Provenance: Stories drift in an out of cultures, shape-shifting as they migrate. Years ago I encountered the kernel of what became “the magic gourd” in “The Wish-Ring,” by Martha Hollaway, in Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival (1991). In this version, a magic ring is given to a farmer, who instead of wasting his wish, works hard alongside his wife to create what they want. I was intrigued by the idea of work, faith and hope being potent tools to build a life. I first adapted the story into a Jewish story for a wedding, using a basket as the magic object.
Martha Hollaway credits Barbara Snow of Eugene, Oregon for giving her the original story.

Later, for a Tu B’shevat Story, I used a tree as the magic entity that grows through the generations. A few years ago, when I needed a story to tell in the Sukkah, the object morphed into a magic gourd. In this version, the Ushpizin join forces with faith and hard work to weave the tapestry of the couples’ life. As I told it in the full moon under the hanging gourds of our Sukkah we sang the refrain “Ufrose Aleynu, Sukkat Shalom,” and felt the glow of our ancestors.  As with most stories, I’m sure the theme of it has traveled in and out of various cultures. I invite you to use this Jewish version in your Sukkah, or shape it into another form for a different storytelling occasion.