I have unexpectedly become an evangelist for Sukkot. Though like any born-again-anything, I wasn’t always such a fanatic for this particular holiday.
Once upon a time I saw Sukkot as an event that only took place as part of a religious school’s curriculum. Along with the other students who came to Hebrew school three times a week, I’d help decorate the synagogue’s sukkah, stringing wire through bizarre looking gourds on the temple’s enormous property overlooking Lake Michigan. The next Sunday morning we’d have apple cider and cinnamon-sugar doughnuts in the sukkah instead of the regular slice of challah and grape juice in the classroom. We’d take turns shaking the lulav and smelling the etrog.
It was a holiday we religious school students approached with an anthropological eye. An ancient people used to build these huts, we seemed to understand. They slept there and ate there. The end. And although most of my childhood friends were Jewish, I didn’t know anyone whose family celebrated Sukkot.
When my husband and I bought our first house in Minneapolis, however, I learned that he enjoyed having a sukkah for a year or two when he was a kid. He mentioned the memory to his father, and within weeks we had a Chabad rabbi and a team of helpers in our driveway erecting a wooden sukkah in our front yard. This was even before we had kids. Eating dinner at a table for two in our dark sukkah I thought, “What now?” Then, “This place needs a light.”
In the next few years we made some friends who took the time to put up a sukkah with an eye for warmth, light, and fun decorations. Our kids would come home with projects from their Jewish preschool we were able to use for our sukkah’s bare walls, and the idea of eating all these meals with extra guests for a week grew on me more from year to year. We eventually traded in our small wooden shed-like structure for a canvas sukkah with a bamboo mat roof. Now that we’re a family of six we might even need a bigger one that can accommodate all of us and the people I like to invite.
But why do I love Sukkot so much? Why do I think it is one of the most underrated of all the Jewish holidays? My top four reasons are below:
1. Sukkot is not so deadly serious.
Rosh Hashanah is the time to reflect and a make a plan for the new year. Yom Kippur is the time to repent. Sukkot is the time to celebrate. In the holiday prayers, Sukkot is described as “the time of our rejoicing.” We are mandated to be happy and celebrate for eight (seven in Israel) nights. What’s not to like?
2. On Sukkot we consider what we have instead of what we don’t have.
Sukkot requires us to leave the comforts of our home so we can sit in flimsy huts with family and friends. I admit that when Sukkot falls in mid-October I look longingly at our dining room and think, “It’s warm and cozy in there.” Despite exchanging our stark, wooden sukkah for the airy canvas one, I still get the message each year that nothing matters more than the people in our lives.
Speaking of the people in our lives, Sukkot forces us to slow down and invite friends to our homes several nights in one week. I don’t cook every night of the holiday because we are also invited to other people’s houses that week. If you’re the first of your friends and family to celebrate Sukkot, you might have to do the heavy lifting for a while. But you can ask people to bring certain dishes and you can certainly order out, too. Each night need not be a Pinterest-worthy spread of fall-themed cuisine. Remember the focus is on celebration, loved ones, and gratitude to God. The Torah makes no mention of Martha Stewart. (I do recommend becoming a Sukkot evangelist so you can get invited to someone else’s sukkah in the future.)
4. Sukkot is the answer to those who secretly (or openly) covet the the Christmas decorating experience.
Sure, this holiday has no tree, no wreaths, no gifts, and no jolly man in a red suit. But there are four walls to decorate; eight if you count the outside; nine if you count the roof. Have at it. Change up the theme every year if you want. One particularly ambitious year I used twinkling lights that looked like grapes on a vine. Most years I have great intentions for creativity, but I usually tend to hang up bunches of miniature corn and put out baskets of baby pumpkins as a centerpiece. Nobody complains.
What about you? Do you love Sukkot? Have I persuaded anyone to try it for the first time?