The pioneering historian of Jews in the American South, Eli Evans, briefly
described how his namesake, Eli Nachamson, made a succa with the help of his
wife and nine daughters in Kinston, North Carolina, during the years before
World War I.
“On Succot, Eli herded all of the family out to the back of
the house to help build the arbor out of branches and to hang fruit from the
When Prof. Marci Cohen Ferris was researching her book on Southern
Jewish cuisine, Matzah Ball Gumbo,
she discovered that in Abbeville, in the
South Carolina low country, the Levinson family decorated its succa with
sugarcane and pomegranates from the 1920s onward. Those two items were so
plentiful that the succa almost had an Eretz Yisrael feel to it when
While Succot has been observed in the US since 1655, initially
via the “cabanas” of the Sephardim as documented by Prof. Jacob Rader Marcus, an
interesting development occurred in the late 1890s when Eastern European
immigrants began to settle in various southern communities. Many of them brought
Succot traditions from their homeland which had not been practiced in the former
Confederate states because the Reform movement was dominant there.
fact, in 1901 there were fewer than 50 sets of lulavim
and Richmond in Virginia, Columbia and Charleston in South Carolina, Savannah,
Atlanta and Augusta in Georgia, Birmingham in Alabama, New Orleans in Louisiana,
Mississippi towns, Nashville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida.
1889, the Atlanta Constitution
ran a headline reading “Feast of Tabernacles – A
Big Day with Atlanta’s Hebrews and Children.” The story, published on October
10, described the harvest festival in which a booth was built to remind the
Israelites of their wandering in the desert.
“For the holiday, the Temple
on Pryor Street has a festive booth right next to the Holy Ark; the Ashkenazim
have outdoor decorated shacks near their homes in the Gilmer Street area. The
‘lulof’ [sic] will be used.”
By 1900, the Succot holiday in the South was
employing the symbols in a different fashion.
In the newspapers in Athens
and Macon, Georgia, a similar story appeared.
“The Succot festival is
meant not as a season of self-congratulation gained in the products of the farm
and gained in business, but as a time for thought on the larger social
More than likely the story came out of New York and was picked
up by the small-town papers where only a few Jews lived. For some American Jews,
it was clear how the symbols of the holiday might be interpreted for the
Jumping back and forth during the first 20 years of
the 20th century, it can be noted that American rabbis began to use the holiday
for focusing on the issues of the day. In the Athens Banner
, a daily Georgia
paper, the headline on October 4, 1914, read “Adath Moshe, Tabernacles – Day of
Prayer for Peace.” In the story, the headline’s main point was
“At the service, there will be special significance to the
Tabernacle’s day of observance this year. There will be a prayer for peace in
Europe in the synagogue. The congregants will enter heartily, with more than
usual interest, into the plan of peace suggested by President Woodrow
During the fall that year the beginning of disturbances in
Europe ultimately leading to World War I had begun. Wilson, a “peacenik,” was
trying to develop a widespread mind-set in his nation which would encourage the
cessation of hostilities. Jews were swept into this thinking during Succot of
that year and for the next few years.
In the book Orthodoxy in the New
World: Immigrant Rabbis and Preaching 1881-1924
(in Hebrew) by Prof. Kimmy
Caplan of Bar- Ilan University on the sermons of the early Orthodox rabbis in
the US, he shows how these rabbis quickly became a part of the American scene.
They spoke about the observance of mitzvot, but they also tried to show how the
traditional holidays could play a role in American life. More than likely, it
was the efforts of the Agudas HaRabbanim rabbinical organization in the US that
awakened an interest in American Jews in lulav and etrog sets before World War
There are a few black-and-white drawings of American Jews holding
these traditional items as early as the second decade of the 20th century, but
paintings of US Jews practicing this ritual come much later.
siddur (prayer book) publisher Joseph Magil of Philadelphia did illustrate some
of his books with photographs of individuals practicing this ritual.
Atlanta at the Temple, in 1910, Rabbi David Marx took great pride in “the pulpit
being beautified with an arbor decorated with seasonable fruits.” After the
service the children took the produce to the Atlanta Jewish Orphans’ Home and to
a local neighborhood house.
There was also a reflection in the South of
what was occurring in the more traditional world. In 1912 in Savannah, the paper
noted: “Orthodox Jews erect little bowers of branches and foliage in their
houses and outside of their synagogues, where they say their prayers of
In Athens in 1911, the story explained that “the Israelite
left his house for a week of festival and lived through, as it were, an
important epoch of his people’s history.” Now the key point, “this was a way of
replenishing the springs of Jewish sentiment.”
For my grandfather Rabbi
Tuvia Geffen, the Atlanta Constitution
carried the following item in 1911, for
his first Succot in the state: “Though a succah is small and typically does not
protect well against the increasingly harsh fall weather, Jews are expected to
be joyous and grateful for all that God has provided. The emphasis on
fruits and vegetables in the decoration of the sukkah and in the meals
reinforces the themes of abundance and hospitality in this harvest
Facing the shortage of lulav and etrog sets in the Southeast US
when he arrived in Atlanta in 1910, Rabbi Geffen decided that he had to be the
supplier to ensure the needs were met. From 1912 until 1960, when he was 90, he
ordered sets from Eretz Yisrael through a dealer in New York in the summer so
that they would arrive in time to be sent out to 20 cities and towns in five
During World War I, he ordered from a rabbi in Los Angeles – who
brought in etrogim from other locales in the Pacific and possibly from Crete as
well – because Eretz Yisrael was under a naval blockade.
One customer for
more than half a century was Pinchus Silver of Augusta, Georgia.
granddaughter, Elaine Schreiber of Ra’anana, was the first Orthodox woman to be
the president of a major Jewish federation, when she was elected to that post in
Phoenix, Arizona. I had the privilege in the ’40s and ’50s to watch annually as
my grandfather prepared the lulav and etrog, hadas and arava, to be sent
throughout the south in time for the holiday.
As with many Jewish
holidays in the US, today there are thousands of succot throughout the south. As
Herman Wouk had predicted in This is My God
, this family festival has truly