Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sukkot 5772/2011 in Israel

Sukkot is a holiday that is often neglected in the Jewish community in North America. Though it is considered one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, part of the group of three “pilgrimage” holidays, it has become a holiday that is more likely to be celebrated by Orthodox Jews along with some Conservative and Reform Jews.

Perhaps this is partially due to timing. Since Sukkot arrives only a few days after Yom Kippur, it is difficult for many people to take off days from work for religious observance after having used holiday time for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

It could also be related to the weather. After all, in many parts of North America, it could be only 10 or 15 degrees Celsius and maybe even very rainy, which makes it a challenge to sit outside in a makeshift hut with a thinly covered roof and enjoy meals for 8 days. Then there is the challenge of procuring a palm branch, some willow leaves, myrtle leaves and an etrog (citron – part of the lemon family) to hold together during morning prayers. Finally, many families simply did not grow up celebrating the holiday in post-war Canada and the U.S. and the traditions were not passed along in the same way as a holiday like Pesach (Passover).

All of this is very different in Israel, which is clearly the best place in the world to be to celebrate Sukkot.

For starters, Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Most stores, restaurants, and other businesses are closed on the first and last days of the seven day holiday. Kids are off school the entire time. Many businesses are on lighter work schedules during the intermediary days. For many families, it is a great opportunity to leave the country and go travelling to Europe or some other destination for a family vacation. But for those remaining in Israel, it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday.

Some aspects of the holiday have transcended religious boundaries and become part of a national celebration. Many secular families put up sukkot (temporary booths) even if they only wind up using them once or twice to entertain some guests. Kids have lots of fun making decorations for their family sukkah, in school before the holiday starts, and with their families.

Many Israeli cities have palm trees. In Ra’anana, for example, the city trims its palm trees a few days before Sukkot and posts a schedule of when the trees will be trimmed and where the branches will be available for free pick-up. Residents are able to collect these palm branches and use them for the roofs of their sukkot. Some families have one or more of the required trees on their own property and can collect the proper items from their own backyard.

Cities across Israel have “Sukkot markets” where people can come and buy almost any item needed for the holiday, ranging from pre-fabricated sukkot starting from about $150 for a complete kit (with metal poles, canvas walls and bamboo roofs), to the sets of items needed for the holiday (lulav and etrog sets). With all of the competition, the prices of the various items become much more reasonable. It is quite a bit of fun to wander around in these markets and see what is being offered and the varying price ranges.

Restaurants throughout Israel, even many that are not even kosher, put up sukkot, so that their patrons can sit and eat their meals in the sukkah. This is actually quite the sight. In areas that are densely packed with restaurants, like some parts of Achuza Street in Ra’anana, you can see a whole row of sukkot, one in front of each restaurant. Some restaurants share one sukkah between two or three establishments.

We enjoyed a family dinner at the beginning of the holiday sitting outside with a group of about 30, eating, singing and drinking wine. We could see and hear neighbours on both sides also enjoying the festival with outdoor family meals. We also managed to make it Jerusalem for a bat-mitzvah during the intermediary days of the holiday. There were thousands of people arriving at the Old City of Jerusalem that day with their lulav and etrog sets in hand for the morning prayers. The roads were closed to most private vehicles so we wound up walking for about 40 minutes from the Kotel area to the restaurant for the celebration. The area was simply too crowded to be able to take a taxi.

The weather was beautiful throughout the country for the entire seven day holiday. Israeli and other musicians were performing at clubs and venues all over. There were various indoor and outdoor festivals taking place and many people taking the time to enjoy family outings at many of Israel’s hiking trails, water parks or historical sites.

One of the Hebrew names for Sukkot is “z’man simchateinu” (the time of our happiness). It is a name that is well suited. Sukkot really is one of the happiest times to be in Israel, as a visitor or as an Israeli.

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