Celebrating Succot

Succot is a holiday with a high level of visibility.

Succa painting (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Succa painting
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Succot is a holiday with a high level of visibility. To celebrate properly one must procure quite a few accessories. Markets spring up all across the nation during the days running up to the holiday to accommodate the more observant among us. Hundreds of religious men can be seen examining the straightness of ripe, green, closed fronds from date palm trees. The zealously meticulous can be seen peering through loupes like those used to examine diamonds to detect unwanted blemishes on citron fruits. The leaves on the boughs of myrtle trees are scrutinized to determine whether their formations are symmetrical. And throughout the holiday willow tree branches must be replenished every few days to ensure freshness.
These four species must then be waved around and shaken on each of the seven days of the holiday. When traveling, this vegetation must be schlepped along. On buses, on trains, and on planes the translucent, plastic sacs used to protect the branches from prematurely wilting are ubiquitous. Delays at customs in airports around the world are often caused by perplexed border control officials who don’t quite know how to deal with this decidedly agricultural form of religious expression.
Then there are the succot or booths that need to be built. Roofing, frames, wooden or fabric walls and decorations can be bought at one of the makeshift sales outlets that temporarily line our city streets or appear in our malls. These huts must then be constructed. They can be seen everywhere: in backyards with extension cords connecting them to outlets inside the house and perched on balconies high in the air. Restaurants and hotels build them for their clientele and companies provide them for employees. They sometimes block sidewalks and intrude on private property.
Here in the Jewish state, this very public form of religious expression is accepted with equanimity by all.
Succot and its accompanying customs are part of the ebb and flow of Israeli culture. These are the times of year that we are reminded of how fortunate we Jews are that we have our own country where we can do our own Jewish thing.
In the Diaspora, in contrast, Succot is one of the least celebrated holidays outside Orthodox circles. Obtaining the four species is usually more complicated, the weather is often too cold to be conducive to sitting outside, and celebrating a holiday so intimately tied to the Land of Israel’s unique environment seems strangely out of place abroad. Inevitably, Diaspora Jews also feel uncomfortable to varying degrees with celebrating a Jewish holiday in such a visible manner in the midst of a gentile culture.
Pesach, with its universal message of human freedom, is much more amenable to Diaspora life. It can be observed completely within the privacy of one’s own home. The telling of the story of the Exodus is done around the dining table with family, friends, and other loved ones. The most visible public aspect of Pesach is being seen buying matzot at the kosher section of the local supermarket.
The attraction of Hanukka, another holiday widely celebrated in the Diaspora, is its proximity to Christmas.
Jewish children can brag that they get presents just like their Christian friends.
Celebrating Succot seems oddly out of place anywhere but in Israel. And in a sense, Succot is indicative of other aspects of Jewish and Israeli life. As Jews many of us take it for granted today that we live in a culture that fully belongs to us, from the national calendar and the language to literature and other forms of artistic expression.
This not to say that all of the Jews living here feel completely at home. Many of us who have taken part in Israel’s astounding ingathering of exiled communities from all over the globe feel at times alienated. Perhaps being Jewish entails a certain amount of unease, of feeling not fully at home anywhere. But in the State of Israel no Jew need feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about expressing himself or herself as a Jew.
There have always been Jews living in the Diaspora and there probably always will be. But whether they choose Berlin or Los Angeles or Sydney, the knowledge that there is a place where Jews can do eminently Jewish things like building a succa or waving a lulav without concern they will be considered weird must be a comforting thought.
Hag Sameah!