Sukkot, one of the three great pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year, begins this Sunday evening. But poor Sukkot… she often gets lost in the great High Holiday shuffle.
For many of us, the whirlwind of Jewish holidays has wound down. We’ve stuffed ourselves silly with bagels and kugel at the break-fast. We’ve eaten our share of apples and honey, we’ve heeded the call of the shofar and tried to think about ways in which we’ll make 5773 better than 5772, and, if you’re anything like me, we’ve lost sleep shuffling our young children between grandparents’ homes, sleeping in different beds, coming back to our apartments in the city smelling like chicken, only to turn around and realize another holiday is upon us.
But Sukkot is awesome, and especially for kids, because this is a holiday that’s all about being outside and being a part of your neighborhood and appreciating nature, and these are things that go hand in hand with having children.
I don’t know about you, but with two 17-month-old kids, I spend a lot of time outside. My girls want nothing more than to run around in an open space, free from the confines of our small apartment. They want to dig their little paws into the dirt at the park; they want to eat acorns and pebbles. They want to run, shrieking, directly at each other over concrete, tackling each other and scraping knees anew, each time we visit the playground.
Basically, my girls want to do anything but sit still. So attending synagogue services has become something I aspire to on the holidays, but not something I manage to accomplish. And this is where Sukkot comes in.
As you probably know, Sukkot is named for the flimsy huts Jews either (take your pick) lived in while they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt or, dwelt in during the period of harvest. Either way, Sukkot is about building one of these huts on your roof or deck or balcony or in your yard, inviting guests over and spending as much time in the sukkah as possible.
Like the Amish and Mennonite communities know from their practice of barn-raising, building something with your community has undeniable benefits for adults and kids alike. Working with your hands, as a team, and seeing (an outdoorsy) project through to its fruition feels good. It’s fun, too. When I was a kid, we piled into the car with friends from synagogue and barreled down the Sagtikos Parkway to the outer reaches of Jones Beach to collect s‘chach [a product from the Earth] for the sukkah roof. My dad would whack down the beachy reeds from the side of the road and throw them into the trunk of our car.
Back at home my mom would organize an assembly line of neighborhood kids who strung popcorn and gourds, small pumpkins, and cranberries. These would serve as our sukkah’s decorations, along with holiday cards and the crayon drawings my friends and I made at the kitchen table. When the building and decorating were complete, more visitors would arrive from down the block or across town, to shake the lulav and eat lunch in the sukkah (incidentally, if you decorate with cranberries and popcorn, be prepared for the neighborhood squirrels to eat lunch with you, too).
Those days, we spent the entire afternoon outside, regardless of the weather. Some years, Sukkot fell during peak fall weather–and we enjoyed our lunch in the crisp air. Some years it was hot, and the house crowded, and the flies abounded. Some years it rained, and so once the structure was up, the sukkah decorating was put on hold, and everyone ate soup inside. But either way, I remember Sukkot as a time to be outside, stomping around in the leaves, getting dirty, and riding bikes out on the street. I looked forward to Sukkot with an excitement I didn’t feel for the other Jewish holidays that fell during autumn, mainly because Sukkot meant raucous play and dirt under my fingernails. I liked to scratch the etrog and smell its citrus wonderfulness; I liked greeting nightfall in the sukkah, admiring the work of many people, remembering a great day.
We won’t be building a sukkah this year but we will definitely be bringing our girls to visit one. By letting them gaze at the stars through a thatched roof, we will hopefully give our girls an opportunity to recognize the beauty of the outdoors and appreciate the hugeness of our world and their tiny but crucial place in it.
With the holiday of atonement behind us and talk of the Book of Life receding behind actual life, Sukkot, also known as “Zman Simchateynu,” or the “season of our joy,” reminds us that despite all other things, at this very moment in time, we must find that which is joyous and honor it, because like the sukkah, everything is temporary, and the time to celebrate is now.
For more on Sukkot, learn how to build your own sukkah, how to decorate it once it’s finished, and what to eat once you’re inside.