A belated Hag Same’ah from our new home!

The hardest part of celebrating holidays in a new country is being away from your family and friends.

Decorating a Sukkah  (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Decorating a Sukkah
APPLES AND honey, shofars and sukka dwellings were a part of life for millions of Jewish families around the world for a few weeks in October as we experienced Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot. One can’t help but be struck by the fact that customs and traditions are marked in much the same way wherever you are. But, there also are some stark differences in Israel. Here are some, as seen through the eyes of an olah hadasha (new immigrant).
Why are there no cars?
One often associates street closures with an accident, protest or festive parade. So, the empty streets in Israel during Yom Kippur seemed surprising. Yom Kippur in South Africa was the one holiday when young children stayed home, leaving the adults time to focus and reflect in the synagogue. Here, children of all ages are out in droves, making the most of this time ‒ from sunset to sunset ‒ by walking, cycling, rollerblading or riding scooters in the roads. Teenagers even walk on highways to nearby cities. It feels like the country has come to a standstill – no cars, buses or taxis. Just thousands of people either in shuls or spending time outdoors.
What is causing this traffic jam?
A friend sent an SMS to advise us to avoid parts of the main road in Ra’anana. He wasn’t sure why there was a traffic backlog on Ahuza Street. Was it a bumper bashing? Maybe road works? No. Palm leaves were being cut off trees in the middle of the road, and residents had come out in droves to collect skhakh (fronds) for their sukkot. These outdoor dwellings range in size from small ones on tiny balconies with two chairs to the larger kind that extend into gardens and cater to several families. It feels as though everyone is somehow connected during Sukkot, regardless of their level of observance.
The standard greeting is “Hag same’ah!”
One can’t help but be struck by the number of people who greet you with the words, “Hag Same’ah!” The security guard at a mall, the taxi driver, the butcher and strangers in the street all know it’s a festive time. One is also struck by the range of accents ‒ including people from France, Russia and Argentina – who are all using the same greeting. It seems like it’s the standard phrase over this period, and it makes you feel like you’re surrounded by people celebrating together.
Women delivering speeches in an Orthodox shul?
The last time I delivered a speech from inside a synagogue was at my bat mitzva ceremony in Durban, with 11 other girls… some decades ago! I’ve been lucky enough to speak in the past at many community events or dinners in shul halls or nearby venues, but when I was asked to speak inside the synagogue on a Saturday morning after the service, as part of a TED-talk style event, I must admit to being surprised. The four speakers included two women. We each spoke on different topics from the pulpit downstairs (usually for men only) in an Orthodox synagogue – an interesting new normal.
Friends who start to feel like family
The hardest part of celebrating holidays in a new country is being away from your family and friends. In South Africa, our parents and siblings live in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. We were always in one of those three cities for the main festivals. Rosh Hashana this year was spread over three days because of Shabbat. We were blessed to be asked to different people for each of the six meals. Each family we visited welcomed us into their homes, just as they had been welcomed by fellow olim when they were new in town. It was an incredible honor to spend time with new friends, who are already starting to feel like family.
Smile of the week
– Walking in the streets of Jerusalem during the Shabbat of Sukkot and bumping into friends from South Africa and London ‒ we spent the afternoon catching up in a sukka in a nearby park.
Moment of the week – Visiting the Western Wall that night, a Danish man approached us while walking back through the bustling Mamilla Mall to say he was visiting with a Christian organization and he just wanted to offer us a blessing for peace.
New food discovery – Dates stuffed with walnuts, pecans or any nuts – addictive.