With Sukkot just around the corner, I’m confronted with a question that’s become familiar throughout this High Holiday season: How do I invite my 6-month-old daughter into her Jewish heritage in isolation?
By the time my daughter was born in March 2021, the pandemic was a year old and the term “pandemic baby” was already a common moniker for those born in the upside-down reality of Covid-19. A brief hiatus between mass vaccination in my local Jewish community and the emergence of the delta variant made shul seem like a safe space to explore Judaism for a few months this summer. But now, like many families with children too young to be vaccinated, we’re back to being homebound and relatively isolated for the holidays.
Fortunately, in many ways, Sukkot is uniquely suited to the pandemic because its most special ritual takes place outdoors: building the sukkah, a reinterpretation of the huts where farmers would sleep during the fall harvest and traditionally believed to be the structures the Israelites lived in during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. However, for many of us — especially the urban dwellers among us — constructing a full-sized hut is not feasible, while visiting a communal sukkah may not feel safe for little ones during high-traffic gatherings.
In re-envisioning Sukkot as a (nearly) solo sport, I’ve begun to reflect on how to share some of the rituals and themes of the holiday with my young one. As a busy mom, I’m interested in simple activities that can be done in about 15 minutes (or less) and, as a Jewish educator, I’m interested in activities that are accessible to all families. Here are my suggestions for celebrating Sukkot this year with the littlest ones.
1. Come on, get happy
One of the easiest holiday themes for pandemic babies is joy. One unique element of the Sukkot tradition is the expectation not only to perform physical rituals — building the Sukkah, shaking the lulav (palm frond) — but also to perform emotionally. The Torah actually commands us to rejoice — to be happy — on this holiday. What a strange time to be commanded to feel joy, when many of us are wading through fatigue and disappointment that our child’s world is vastly different from what we expected.
My daughter has a magical laugh. She began laughing at 2 months when I stuck my tongue out at her and she hasn’t stopped since. I find her joyous reactions to adversity inspirational. Dumps our mastiff’s water bowl on herself? Hilarious! Mommy swears during a diaper change gone south? Her gasping chuckle gets me giggling, too. Being silly is a perfect way to celebrate Sukkot in a way that is meaningful to her and requires few specific supplies. Anything that she can take in through her five senses counts: a five-minute dance party with Sukkot EDM, disco, or indie tunes, parachuting a blanket over her head for some Sukkah-inspired peekaboo, or tooting out the world’s largest raspberries on her tummy. During a pandemic, our little ones’ joy is the right type of infectious.
2. Take it outside
Sukkot is a holiday that is centered around the cycles of nature and the fall harvest. Enjoy a hike or pumpkin patch with your little one and point out the changes in the season. A few fallen pieces of nature such as leaves, pinecones, or bark make for interesting textures and colors to explore during supervised tummy time. Another sensory collection to explore is the fruits of the harvest: my daughter enjoys playing with raw carrots, a large chunk of squash, half an apple, or whatever else she can get her hands on that she won’t accidentally swallow.
If you have access to a sukkah, your baby can help make decorations without making a mess. Place a SEALED gallon Ziploc bag on the floor filled with a piece of paper and a couple of squirts of fall-colored paint. After your child has enjoyed creating lots of new shapes and colors with their hands, mouth and tummies, remove the paper from the bag and allow the painting to dry. Tada — a homemade sukkah decoration!
3. Taste the season
While parenting during the pandemic often means more opportunities to be in our children’s presence, we’re also juggling more — from remote work to childcare — on our own. While some days I have the energy and time to set up new activities with my daughter, other days I take pride in simply getting through the day having met all our basic needs. Those are the days to imbue my daughter’s daily rituals with just a little taste of the holiday: I’ll switch up her usual nibbles of solid food with some squash or applesauce. If your little one is eating solid foods you can also try roasted sweet potato cubes or pumpkin bread.
4. Drop everything and read
Leading up to and during the holiday, we’ll read Sukkot picture books from PJ Library at bedtime. (My daughter and I especially love The Elephant in the Sukkah by Sherri Mandell.) Even though most of these books are suggested for ages 3 to 5, babies get a lot from new vocabulary, especially if you point to objects on the page and name them. Also, any opportunity to act out animal sounds (especially a giant, trumpeting elephant squeezing into a sukkah) brings on the giggles and snuggles.
There’s no way to know if next Sukkot will be spent in isolation. But while the pandemic is rife with loss, what I will bring with me from this time is the creative ways I am learning to bond with my daughter. We may not experience large, communal gatherings this year, but whether we keep busy riddling out pine cone textures or reading a harvest-themed bedtime story, this Sukkot she will embark on her Jewish path with wonder and joy. What more could I ask for?