Metro

One very big sukkah in search of a new home

Richard and Gale Wilgoren in years past served a couple of dozen guests in their sukkah, which was decorated for the Sukkot festival by family members but now sits in their garage.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Richard and Gale Wilgoren in years past served a couple of dozen guests in their sukkah, which was decorated for the Sukkot festival by family members but now sits in their garage.

NEWTON — The sukkahs peeking from side yards or placed atop driveways here are mostly modest affairs, scrap-wood lean-tos or prefabricated pop-ups erected annually for the weeklong Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, room inside for six or eight at the table, maybe a snug 10.

Then there is the Wilgoren sukkah, comfortably seating 24, ordered not from Sukkah.com or its many competitors, but crafted by a Brookline carpenter in 1974. It boasts a floating floor, filigreed sconces, and all-weather wiring, with walls fashioned from 14 interlocking panels — hunter green outside, handsomely varnished inside.

Or rather, then there was the Wilgoren sukkah, resting in pieces now for the second straight Sukkot, which this year ends Thursday evening. Hard by the Green Line tracks near Newton Centre, it sits inside Richard and Gale Wilgoren’s garage. Though even here, disassembled and draped in a tarp, it seems roughly as big as a Lincoln Continental.

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Which is partly why Richie’s attempts to pass it down to his three daughters or convey it to someone else have yet to succeed, despite his eagerness to see a source of four decades of joy and meaning endure as something more than kindling.

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For starters, in an age when the kids might balk at great-grandma’s wedding china, who could store something this big? And to own it for anyone familiar with its history would mean trying to preserve Sukkot the Wilgoren way — not just fill the sukkah with people once or twice for cookies and soda or pizza but pack it six or eight times every autumn, always with a homemade six-course lunch or dinner on linen and china, always two kinds of soup, two or three of the choicest cuts of meat, fresh fruit and greens, eight or 10 kinds of cookies for dessert.

It would require all the candy-colored lights and harvest corn and liquor bottles that dangled from the leafy trellis overhead, plus the posters and holiday cards that covered the walls, plus the eclectic cast that expanded year after year, biblical scholars and blue-collar characters, old, young, and in between. The whole recipe elevated the Wilgorens and their sukkah to folk-hero status in local observant-Jewish circles, even beyond.

“Everybody associated Sukkot for many years with the Wilgorens and the amazing sukkah they had,” said Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna, both a leading authority on American Jewish history and a second-generation Wilgoren guest.

The freewheeling mashup of high and low and the belt-busting feast nearly defied description — though one Catholic-reared friend likened it to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and July 4 combined into one, and interpreted by Vegas.

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Of the hosts, Richie was the larger-than-life character with gravelly bass-drum voice, a big-hearted man not known for proportion. He was always the meat guy, from his first summer job (Cohen’s delicatessen) on Nantasket Beach, right on through a this-and-that working life spent mostly around food.

Gale, the understated steady partner, was master of soups, sides, and dessert, a knitter who stocked the sukkah with sweaters for chilly nights, and a nurturing softball coach with a soft spot for Lifetime movies and sale-rack shoes.

Now he’s 77; she’s 78. Even after starting to rent dishes and hire people to assemble and dismantle the sukkah and serve, the couple would start cooking in August, stockpiling a second refrigerator and stand-up freezer. Each hosted meal meant scurrying between kitchen, backyard, and basement, harder each year.

Richard Wilgoren placed the schach (branches/covering) atop the sukkah at his home in Newton.
Wilgoren family photo
Richard Wilgoren placed the schach (branches/covering) atop the sukkah at his home in Newton.

“It was a wonderful thing,” Richie said recently. “But you just get to a point where you can’t physically do it anymore.”

Gale grew up secular in Brookline, never noticing a sukkah. Richie, from Dorchester, knew them only as something erected by synagogues or rabbis, everyone else too harried, too crowded, too poor.

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He emerged from a vanished age in which 70,000 Jews were packed within walking distance of a 3-mile band of Blue Hill Avenue. At the center — geographically, and in his eyes — was his maternal grandfather, immigrant tailor Isaac Dantowitz, near the famed G&G Deli.

Still in his 20s, Richie bought into friend Marty Rosenberg’s third-generation meat market at a time when the majority of neighborhood Jews had already died or decamped for the suburbs. With big visions, they followed, constructing a supersized Rosenberg’s in Newton, doing well enough for the Wilgorens to buy a Colonial nearby in 1972.

Family photo of Richard and Gale Wilgoren's daughters, Julie (left) and Jodi (right) in the family's sukkah at their home in Newton in 1983.
Wilgoren family photo
Family photo of Richard and Gale Wilgoren's daughters, Julie (left) and Jodi (right) in the family's sukkah at their home in Newton in 1983.

The store would be gone within a few years. In a few more, they would have to sell the house, moving ultimately to a rental that enticed them with its sukkah-friendly paved backyard and empty garage.

But the short-lived Rosenberg’s Kosher Foods era was pivotal, not just because it steered the kids away from the food business and toward Ivy League schools. It introduced the Wilgorens to the warmth and possibility of home sukkahs — the girls suggested putting up their own after ’73 — and gave him know-how to stage meals like a caterer.

Indeed, “caterer” came to mind as a candidate for who might be up for inheriting all this, once Richie decided 2015 would be the end of “the sukkah business.” They had hosted a few thousand guests, a few hundred meals, during a perfectly even 40 Sukkot holidays from 1974 through 2015, missing only the year Gale had cancer and the year they scrambled for housing.

But the community’s leading kosher caterer, Andrew Wiener, already had perhaps the only at-home sukkah rivaling theirs — no accident; a loving homage.

“When I first started going to Richie’s sukkah and seeing how he was serving, it inspired me,” Wiener said. The young caterer forged a fast friendship with Richie in the 1980s after watching him haul a cooler packed with ice and beer to a synagogue function because someone had requested a beer.

Richie knew daughters Julie Coffman and Debbi Wilgoren lacked space in Chicago and Washington, but his hopes rose when youngest daughter Jodi Rudoren returned from serving as New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief and bought a Victorian in New Jersey.

Except she demurred, too — citing her lack of a garage, but also daunted by the idea of trying to pull off anything approaching the ambitious Sukkot gatherings they loved.

So before Sukkot last year, Richie blasted a message to his synagogue listserv (“SUKKAH FOR SALE . . . Priced to sell at $4,900”). No luck. Maybe only an institution — temple, religious school — would want one so big, and they already had them.

As this year’s Sukkot neared, Jodi wrote about the sukkah for Moment, a national Jewish magazine. Immediately her Facebook wall lit up — lifelong friends and long-ago acquaintances sharing what those Wilgoren gatherings meant to them.

Still, no takers. “Because it’s not an easy thing to handle. It’s not one of these where you can just unfold it, put the poles in, put it up,” Gale said this week. That’s without cooking and hosting. “It’s an expensive proposition.”

Richie jumped in, disagreeing hopefully. “You can do it yourself! You don’t need the floor, if you’ve got a flat driveway!” he said. “You don’t need to serve 20 people!”

Gale nodded. “If anyone’s interested, we’d be glad.”

Richie’s booming voice softened. “The price,” he said, “is not important.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.