Thursday, September 12, 2013

Letter From Israel

 elinor        אלינור   



5774 is upon us and people on the street are greeting each other with calls of Shana tova—a good year—whether they know each other or not.  Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—begins tonight and the call has changed to G’mar chatima tova, may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good.  Thank you.

For those of us who aren’t certain as to what holiday falls when, Succot is the one that comes up right after Yom Kippur.  It’s called that because people build succot, huts, in commemoration of the 40 years following the Exodus from Egypt.  Each succa (or sukka or sukkah, there is no end to the translations and transliterations)—a temporary booth which implies a residence—reflects the builders’ tastes and family traditions. In any case there are no more than three full walls and the roof is left mostly open to the sky, as was the case without proper building materials during the Exodus. Throughout the holiday, which lasts for seven days, people eat in the succa and often sleep there as well. 

Succot (plural of succa) is a national religious holiday which is expressed in the building of the succa, acquiring the Four Species and needless to say, food preparation.

One of the best parts of living in Israel is the celebration of what is called in the Diaspora ‘the Jewish holidays’.  (We just call them ‘holidays’.)  Friends who had moved to Australia several years ago recently moved back here, saying they didn’t feel any real Jewishness in Sydney.  The atmosphere of the city didn’t change when the High Holydays came around, although they certainly had access to every sort of synagogue imaginable. 

The difference is clear:  In Israel, the atmosphere is the country—the scurrying to organise the essentials; the hustling for ingredients; the cooking of mounds of food according to ethnic dictates and if you’re lucky,  a noisy, hungry crowd to enjoy all that with you.  Then the peaceful hush of the holiday begins.  Even if you have no real connection to Jewish practices, it’s affecting.

So here’s the drill:  Succot follows on the heels of Yom Kippur and there are only four days in which to build a succa. Whilst many people buy them ready-made, or haul the pieces down from their boydem—overhead storage spaces—the succa still needs to be assembled, so the sounds of hammering and drilling are heard all day and much past the night-time legal noise limit, which is widely ignored. 

Palm fronds, called schach, are the preferred covering for the top of the succa and are purchased from the schach sellers who suddenly appear on street corners.  Wrestling those huge, awkward branches back to the site of the succa is easily a job for two grown men.

For the Four Species, a shuk—a street market—is essential.  Endless tables display samples, each vendor hawking his wares as pure, absolute perfection.  Observant Jews roam the shuk, comparing this etrog (citron) against that, considering the freshness of the lulav, calculating the relative costs and wondering if they’ll ever find a set of one fruit and three kinds of branches—willow, myrtle and palm—that will please them.  They inevitably do.

Neighbourhoods clatter with activity until the last hour before the holiday begins. Some families construct a small succa, meant only for themselves; other succas are gigantic—often built on the grounds of synagogues—so that those who have the need but not the means can eat and rest as prescribed.  Electric lights (with timers) for the evening meals  are connected by endless cords to their home base outlets—and you’d best watch your step, those cords are pernicious.

Many apartment buildings assemble one conjoined succa, each unit belonging to a different family but attached without interior walls so that neighbours can eat together.  Meals are carried into the succa and often shared.  Tree roots and various fauna are forgiven their intrusion and the tables, which are left in situ overnight, often provide early morning sleeping quarters for local cats.  There are no proper doors, so the tablecloths are renewed daily. 

After the banging and the building, what?  As in any new home, decoration!  For days and days before the holiday begins, schoolchildren have been creating artwork for the succa, featuring the elements of Succot.  All those kindergarten mornings, slaving away over paper chains; all those afternoons in primary school, depicting the Four Species and the Exodus from Egypt; producing hanging lanterns; crafting ungainly fruits of papier mache in improbable shades along with the best of holiday wishes scrawled on every colour of paper—those are the homey arts of Succot.  If the decorations are well made and the rain doesn’t come to ruin them, they might feature again next year. In the ultra-religious zones, one can buy a range of Christmas decorations, with lots of dazzle. 

Succot engages the whole family, from the crayon pushers to the kids who this year are finally tall enough to help hang the artwork to the teenagers who wrestle with the schach and handle the tools to the adults who are schlepping, banging and cooking.  As holidays go, Succot is a winner.

G’mar chatima tova.

cross posted Geoffff's Joint


  1. G’mar chatima tova!

    Elinor, this is probably the most beautiful piece that you have published here.

    Thank you, my friend.

    Y'know, I have to say, I have nice memories of Succot when I was a child. There was something magical about the holiday.

    As I like to occasionally remind people, I am not particularly religious, although I hold considerable respect for the traditions and for those who are.

    As am American Jew, my favorite holidays tend to be Thanksgiving and Passover, but Succot is beautiful in an exceedingly distinct way.

    Peace to you, please.

  2. Thanks, Mike, what a lovely thing to say. Funny thing is, it was the most difficult piece I've written so far.

    I also have pleasant childhood memories of Succot, sometimes with snow falling on cedar or Norfolk pine branches, which substitute for palm fronds where I come from. It works better in the Middle East, I think.

    I find the holidays a very good way to understand the influences and attitudes towards this amazing country.

    Again, shana tova.

    1. I have a recollection that banana tree fronds make a suitable substitute. Plenty of banana trees around here.

      Shana tova elinor.

    2. Banana tree fronds are usually curved and not quite large enough to reach across the roof space, but if that's what you've got, that's what you use. Wonder how Chabad manages in Alaska...

      Nice to hear from my three fans and welcome back, Jay.


  3. No palm fronds in Philadelphia (aside from the fake ones near that Cuban restaurant in Old City on 2nd Street just off Market), though there were some back in Oregon.

    "I also have pleasant childhood memories of Succot, sometimes with snow falling on cedar or Norfolk pine branches, which substitute for palm fronds where I come from. It works better in the Middle East, I think. "

    Yeah, probably. ;)