Like many aspects of Jewish life, the holiday of Sukkot has become much more widely observed by the Reform community than it was during my childhood.
Back then, as I recall, Sunday School students would make paper chains to hang in the temple sukkah, spend a bit of class time there waving the lulav and etrog, and then forget about it for the rest of the year. Almost no Reform Jews put up their own sukkot, and few fulfilled the commandment to eat at least one meal there.
Our contemporary rediscovery of the joys of Sukkot brings us back around to the understandings of the ancient Israelites when they fulfilled the commandment:
“The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.” (Exodus 34:26).
Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage holidays (along with Pesach and Shavuot), when our ancestors flocked to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem bringing offerings from their crops as sacrifices for God’s bounty. Sukkot was so important to our ancestors that it’s been suggested that the eight-day Chanukah holiday was, in fact, a belated celebration of Sukkot (plus Shmini Atzeret the next day ) once the Temple was restored. Likewise, the Pilgrims took to heart the commandments to recognize God’s role in providing for their needs in the New World:
“You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exodus 34:22) became the inspiration for that first Thanksgiving. But I think part of the reason the holiday has resonated over the course of history has to do with the poignancy of the sukkah itself. Sukkot(booths or huts) were the living quarters of our ancestors during harvest time, as well as their lodging during their wandering in the desert and on their pilgrimages to the Holy Temple.
“Mark, on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord seven days…You shall live in booths all seven days…in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…” (Lev. 23:39-43).
But the sukkah is the perfect symbol for any fragile situation, and that, of course, is the history of the Jewish people. It could have been used throughout the ages to represent everything from our enslavement in Egypt to the Jewish plight during the Spanish Inquisition to life in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The sukkah’s fragility, in fact, begs the question of why there should be so many specific rules and regulations about constructing a temporary structure!)
Right now, in an economic environment in which so many of our fellow citizens are homeless and hungry, recognizing the abundance of God’s gifts in the temporary shelter of a sukkah offers us a current context for its significance. And might the sukkah not also speak to settlers in the West Bank?
So I’m glad that more Jews acknowledge and celebrate Sukkot—and I’m looking forward to shaking the lulav and etrog just the same!
Janet, my childhood was long before yours, and maybe that's why I have a slightly different perspective on the observance of Sukkot in the Reform movement. While I agree that none of the Reform (or Conservative) Jews I knew built a sukkah, visiting the sukkah at the temple was a big deal.
I used to go to children's services at The Temple on Sukkot (we probably called it Sukkos in those pre-Israel days). I can still visualize Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver on the bimah -- my first inkling of what God must look like -- and I can still hear him asking the several hundred kids in the congregation if they could guess what King Solomon asked for when God gave him one request. None of us got the right answer, which was "an understanding heart." Imagine the power of the moment if I remember it seventy years later!
But my big point was kind of a throwaway in the preceding paragraph: several hundred kids at Sukkos children's services. Several hundred kids who stayed home from school and went to temple because it was a Jewish holiday! (At Sukkot services at Beth Emet last week, we had two!)
I don't remember getting the message of remembering the Exodus or of the fragility represented by the sukkah (although today those strike me as the key takeaways) -- only the harvest and the element of thanksgiving.
Thanks for your post -- and for giving me this opportunity to reminisce about the Sukkos of my childhood!
I looked up Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, and it looks like you were very lucky to be one of his congregants! Your experience in that Sukkos--yes, we called it that, too--service is the kind of Judaic education we all strive to do! Thanks for sharing it with us!
Janet -- Although Abba Hillel Silver was an overwhelming presence in the Cleveland (and national and international) Jewish community, he was not my rabbi. Although I started Hebrew school at an early age, it was at a private, parent-run private school, non-synagogue or movement related.
My parents had not affiliated with a congregation, in part because the only Conservative congregation in the neighborhood was "Hungarian," at a time when distinctions like that were important. When the other, Russian, Conservative congregation bought property near where we lived, in line with population shifts, making available a bar mitzvah venue close enough for my grandmother to walk to, we became members there, and I started Sunday school in 7th grade and began bar mitzvah prep.
One of the ironies of Jewish life in Cleveland pre-WW II was that the rabbis of both Reform temples were ardent and active Zionists, at a time when that was unusual in the Reform movement - and in fact, Abba Hillel Silver's congregation tended to be anti-Zionist.
Since I was kept out of school on both days of all holidays, I typically went the first day to what was called Silver's Temple, and the second day to the Conservative (Hungarian) Temple on the Heights. On secular holidays, when there was no public school, we still had Hebrew school, but class was scheduled in the morning instead of at 4 PM. I remember protesting going to Hebrew one Christmas morning, on the grounds that, if my dad didn't have to go to work, I shouldn't have to go to school. Needless to say, I lost.
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