Succot in the American South

Succot has been observed in the US since 1655, with Eastern European immigrants bringing traditions from their homelands.

New Year greeting from Jerusalem sent to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen  (photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen)
New Year greeting from Jerusalem sent to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen
(photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen)
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 roof.”
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 completed.
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.
In fact, in 1901 there were fewer than 50 sets of lulavim and etrogim in Norfolk 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.
In 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 issues.”
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 contemporary period.
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 stressed.
“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 Wilson.”
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 I.
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.
The pioneer siddur (prayer book) publisher Joseph Magil of Philadelphia did illustrate some of his books with photographs of individuals practicing this ritual.
In 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 thanksgiving.”
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 holiday.”
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 states.
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.
Silver’s 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 “made it.”
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