Sunday, September 21, 2008
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 4 October 1999
I would guess that most Americans have never heard of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Tabernacles). It is primarily a harvest festival; but it also serves to remind the Jewish people that, on the road from Egypt to the Promised Land, God sheltered our ancestors. It is interesting that this holiday, almost unseen in the United States, is one of the most visible in Israel.
A sukkah (the plural is sukkot) is basically a small structure, similar to a hut or booth. Here in Israel, people can just go down to the hardware store and buy a special kit that contains everything you need for building a sukkah. They are very easy to put together. They are usually made of metal poles which form a frame, and are surrounded by fabric, which forms the walls. The most important part of the sukkah is the roof, which must be made of a natural material. Many people form the roof (or schach, as it is called in Hebrew) out of palm branches. The schach must provide more shade than sun inside the sukkah, but you also must be able to see the stars through the branches at night.
But an unadorned sukkah is as unheard of as an undecorated Christmas tree. It is traditional to decorate the sukkah with gourds, vegetables, and fruits, to remind us of the origins of the holiday as a celebration of the harvest. It is more common in Israel to buy colorful chains, lanterns and other decorations made of Mylar (I believe these decorations are orignially intended for Chinese New Year celebrations - a rather odd thought!). Whatever their origin, these decorations certainly add a festive flair to the sukkah. Many people also include holiday drawings and crafts made by their children. It is also customary to include somewhere in the sukkah a list of the "ooshpeezeen" or special guests who are traditionally invited to join you in the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. It has always bothered me that there are no female ooshpeezeen.
Many families that are not religiously observant build sukkot, mainly so that their children can enjoy the fun of eating, playing, and perhaps even sleeping in them. For the week of Sukkot, religious people will only eat and drink while inside a sukkah. Many also sleep in the sukkah.
As you drive about on your daily business, you will see sukkot in the front and back yards of private homes, on the balconies of some apartments, and in the communal gardens of apartment buildings. You will see public sukkot as well. Shopping malls and restaurants build very large sukkot so that their patrons can eat out during the holiday.
I have said before that when I celebrate the Jewish holidays in Israel I am most strongly reminded of why I wanted to live here. Sukkot, in particular, reinforces this feeling. Growing up in the United States, I would see one sukkah a year, at our synagogue. I didn't know people could build a sukkah for themselves at home until I was in my mid-twenties. And it wasn't until I moved to Israel, at the age of 35, that I began to understand what it meant to me to be able to see this symbol of the holiday prominently displayed everywhere I went. America is and has always been an excellent place for Jews to live, but even America cannot offer me this feeling of community-wide connection to thousands of years of tradition.
(c) Amy Samin