Sukkot makes it in the U.S. – 1700s to 2014

"Sukkot is one of the most cheerful and delightful holidays in the Hebrew calendar."

A 'plesant sukkah' in New Hampshire (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A 'plesant sukkah' in New Hampshire
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Sukkot success story streams through the history of the Jews in America. In his works on colonial American Jewry, Prof. Jacob Rader Marcus refers to the “cabanas of the Feast of Tabernacles” of the notable pioneer Sephardi Jews.
In a newly discovered handwritten Hebrew calendar in the Deeane and Arnold Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica at the University of Pennsylvania, the dates for hag hasukkot are listed for 1776, 1777 and 1778. In the midst of the American Revolutionary War, the Feast of Tabernacles was not forgotten.
On September 29, 1869, the Atlanta Daily Intelligencer, one of the newspapers in that southern city which rose out of the ashes, wrote: “Sukkot is one of the most cheerful and delightful holidays in the Hebrew calendar. It is not celebrated here with all the ‘pomp and circumstance’ that it is in some parts of the world, yet it is commemorated with festive joy in the booths and thanksgiving.”
With only a Reform temple in Atlanta at the time, the writer concluded: “Business is not generally suspended on this festival.”
On October 17, 1891, a local newspaper in Sacramento, California, carried this description: “The Orthodox Israelite erects a booth in his garden or yard or anywhere adjacent to his dwelling; makes the roof entirely of branches or twigs of trees or shrubbery; decorates the interior of the booth with choicest of ornaments; pronounces the daily blessings and partakes of his meals in the booth.”
The following year, the same paper wrote in regard to the holiday, “The ritual contains poems breathing gratitude for nature’s blessing as well as love of country.”
In San Francisco, a description in that same period noted, “In this country the Jews built tents for the Feast [of Tabernacles] and some eat meals in them while others say a blessing over the bread and eat their meals at home.”
A massive migration of Jews from Russia to the East Coast of America began in 1881, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, regarding which the historian Andrew Heinze made this intriguing note: “The New York Yiddisher Tagblatt declared that Judaism did not use weapons of destruction in the struggle of the great religions – it fought instead with ‘weapons of the spirit,’ of which a vital one was the observance of Sukkot.”
TO REALLY capture the flavor of the holiday in September 1899, the New York Tribune wrote about the area where many Jews lived.
“Each back yard of the East Side these last six days with hardly an exception has possessed one of these houses of boughs, the tents of the Judeans in the wilderness modernized, yet of the spirit of centuries bygone.”
Even though there were numerous articles published before World War I that indicated American Jews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with great fervor, one rabbi was not satisfied. His name was Herbert Goldstein, a Modern Orthodox rabbi with ordination from New York’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an ordination from “Schechter’s Seminary,” an alternate name for the Jewish Theological Seminary.
A revolutionary step was taken in the mid-1920s by the Orthodox Union he headed. That initiative sets the tone for the construction of thousands of sukkot in the US. Home sukkot were needed rather than just the ones at the synagogues.
In his 1926 presidential report, Goldstein wrote, “By means of this collapsible sukka made of canvas and constructed in such a way that it can be erected in a very short time by an adult member of the family, the Union annually provides individuals with the opportunity to add the spiritual exaltation of possessing and using one’s own sukka instead of being content to be ‘yotze’ [fulfill one’s obligation] at the schule [synagogue] sukka.” These kits were in such demand for the next few years that a person had to order right after Passover in order to have one for Sukkot.
Then, with the Great Depression and World War II, the home sukka was not as much in demand. My only experience was in Atlanta, Georgia. When my father finally completed his five-and-a-half years serving as a US Army judge advocate and a prosecutor of Japanese war criminals in Yokohama, he came back to America, and my mother and I returned to Atlanta with him in April 1946. For Sukkot that year, my zeyde had his sukka at his home on Washington Street.
Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Cohen and Ashkenazi Rabbi Harry Epstein each had a sukka at their home. All the synagogues had a sukka outside, and the Reform temple had one on its bima, or podium. At that time only seven other families had a sukka at home. Today, more than 1,000 home sukkot can be found in Atlanta.
Goldstein’s concept of the sukka construction kit was the correct one. Today, a large company in New Jersey that provides “the model sukka” in any size you want, stresses on its website: “No tools needed, assembles in minutes, easy to take apart, expandable as your family grows, long lasting – preserved in special storage bag, affordable.”
The sukka-building industry in the US is a growing one. From cabanas to the “pop-up” sukka, each family can have its own personal celebration – thanks in large part to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein.
The writer is the author of American Heritage Haggadah: The Passover Experience, which can be found in the libraries of three American presidents.