Tonight, we begin the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot. Perhaps even if you are Jewish you haven’t ever heard of this holiday. I think for many people it gets swept under the rug after the multiple days we celebrate for the High Holidays during the weeks before. I personally don’t even remember learning about it until I was a teenager in a Jewish youth group. This is very unfortunate because it’s the perfect holiday for kids and families, and it has become one of my absolute favorite holiday.
So what is Sukkot? It is a celebration of both the harvest and the acknowledgment that the Jewish people wandered the desert for forty years. The word Sukkah actually means booth. During this holiday it’s our chance to commemorate the period when Jews were nomads by building ourselves temporary structures we can “live” in for a week. I also like to think of it as sort of an extension of the summer barbecue/picnic season. We build ourselves a temporary outdoor structure and get to eat outside a few more days after summer has ended. Of course, not all places are created equal in terms of where you are celebrating this holiday. As a college student in Los Angeles, the Sukkot weather was always awesome. Sometimes the Portland, Oregon weather isn’t quite as cooperative, especially when the holiday falls later in the month (the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle so this holiday can fluctuate from mid-September to mid-October). However, when the evenings are clear and we spend a meal outside with our friends and family celebrating, enjoying each others company under the twinkly Christmas lights (yes, I can finally use the Christmas lights for something) it is truly magical. My birthday often falls at Sukkot as well so I have spent more than one year celebrating it in our lovely hut. There are also creative and fun ways to enjoy this holiday even more. I have heard of Spaghetti in the Sukkah, Sukkah hops – visiting multiple sukkahs for your meal also sometimes called a Sukkah Shlep, Lager and Lulav (another symbol of the holiday) and Pizza in the Hut.
In more recent years, organizations have used the festival of Sukkot to help raise advocacy and awareness for issues of housing and homelessness in our communities. It is a perfect reminder of this situation and a way to create opportunities for public forums. If you are involved in any programming in your community perhaps you want to create a program and invite associates from a local housing agency to share with your community the challenges we currently face with homelessness. You can also bring in local councilmen and women, students or service providers to create dialog around this important subject and of course discuss it in your own temporary Sukkah structure.
It is a custom to invite guests into our Sukkahs. Having guests makes our celebration more joyful so this is a special mitzvah. There is also an idea to invite spiritual guests called Ushpizin into your sukkah. These guests represent the patriarchs of the Jewish community. As each “guest” joins us in our Sukkah they provide us with attributes that benefit us, for example kindness, endurance, restraint and humility. I love introducing both Jewish and non-Jewish people to this holiday because it’s truly magical. There is actually a funny movie about Sukkot set in the Orthodox community in Israel called Ushpizin, it’s worth renting if you can get a copy.
So if you live somewhere with a Jewish community center or synagogue, perhaps you want to swing by this week and check out what their Sukkah looks like. You can even inquire if there are any public meals you can attend. If you are building a Sukkah this year you probably already have lots of guests coming but perhaps you can think of one new family or person to introduce to this wonderful and delightful holiday. You’d be inviting them to do a new mitzvah while you do one as well!