Sukkot and Simchat Torah

I know that the holidays of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah are already  about 4 weeks gone, but it has become harder to find time to write because life is so much busier with a baby. I want to take the time to write about Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah even though they aren’t on people’s minds anymore because we want to reflect on all of our holiday experiences here. Last year, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah didn’t really make the blog because we were still living out of suitcases and working hard to acquire important items such as a refrigerator, washing machine, and beds. As Adam recently posted, it is amazing what a difference a year makes.

As always, Sukkot comes up very quickly. Just as you finish recovering from the Yom Kippur fast, it is time to put up the sukkah. Last year since we were so new to the country, we didn’t have our own sukkah. Instead, we spent almost the entire holiday with our friends the Rosensweigs. This year we were in Jerusalem for almost the entire holiday. It was hard to want to purchase a sukkah knowing that we have one back in the US, but the holiday isn’t as much fun without one. Our dilemma of to buy or not to buy didn’t last very long since friends of ours who were here because of Fulbright gave us theirs before they returned to the US this past June. We needed to purchase a number of items to complete the sukkah (an additional fabric wall, the bamboo that goes on top, a table, and a light) but because they gave us most of the pieces, it really cut down on the cost. We hope to pass the sukkah on to someone we know when we leave the same way our friends gave it to us.

Putting up the sukkah took no time at all. The frame is made of metal pieces that click together, and the fabric walls attach to the rods almost like a shower curtain. It was a bit challenging to carry the folding table home from the store, but Adam is amazing. We built the sukkah as a family. I was a bit helpful, and Adina decided to keep us company in the Baby Bjorn although she was asleep. It was a bit sunny while we worked so I had to cover her with my tent (we just recently bought her a cute sun hat!). We didn’t finish putting everything together the first day; Adam had to finish it another time. We accidentally bought the wrong size bamboo, but we were able to modify it so that it would fit. In only a few hours we had our own sukkah!

It was really fun having the sukkah, although it was a bit annoying having to walk up and down four flights of stairs for each meal. We were invited to people’s houses for the holiday meals, for Shabbat, and one weekday meal, so we ended up only having one dinner in our sukkah. That one dinner was really special though; it was with Adam’s dad the night that we picked him up at the airport. It was nice to share our sukkah with him! Despite the few dinners we ate in the sukkah, we had lots of breakfasts and lunches there. The weather at Sukkot is really nice. Things are just starting to cool down and the rain hasn’t really started yet, although it did drizzle during the holiday a few times. It is much easier to appreciate the holiday here in Israel since the weather is more suitable for eating and/or sleeping outside. I have always struggled to connect with this holiday since in Connecticut we either can’t eat in the sukkah because it is pouring or we have to wear our winter coats because it is freezing. Sukkot in Israel really emphasizes how the holidays are linked with the seasons.

The other nice thing about celebrating Sukkot in Israel is that sukkahs are everywhere. It is nice that they are so commonplace; you don’t feel like a weirdo for putting up this tent-like structure on your lawn. Here, there are sukkahs in yards, on balconies, and even in front of restaurants so that customers can fulfill the mitzvah but still enjoy a meal out! Before the holiday ended, we took a quick tour of our neighborhood to see the different types of sukkahs that people construct. We took pictures to show how common they are in Jerusalem.

The holiday of Sukkot, for those of you who don’t know, is a week long. The first day in Israel (the first two outside of Israel) are festival days. Throughout the entire week, there is a mitzvah to wave the four species in all directions. These species are known as the lulav  and etrog. The lulav is a palm branch with myrtle and willow branches together. The etrog is a fruit that looks kind of like a bumpy lemon. People sell these items all over the city in preparation for the holiday. If you want to get a great deal, people suggest that you wait until the last minute. Vendors are anxious to get rid of their merchandise since it isn’t worth too much after the holiday is over. Another way to get a good deal is to go to the shuk, which is the open air market that Adam discussed in a previous blog post. Prior to the start of Sukkot, they set up a gigantic tent at the shuk and vendors gather there. It is a bit claustrophobic since it is packed with people. Adam and I went to check it out but not to buy. Adam bought his lulav and etrog somewhere else for a little bit more money but a lot less stress. We still went to the shuk to see what it was like. It was amazing to see all the different etrogim and all the people shouting and pointing at what they wanted. It was nice to be able to observe without the pressure of needing to buy.

For the festival day, we had meals out. At night we were with a family from West Hartford who came to spend a month in Israel to get a sense of what it is like to live here before they decide to make aliyah. It was really wonderful to see and to catch up with them. They have three adorable children who were so wonderful to be around. They also invited a mutual friend from Uconn who made aliyah about a year ago that we haven’t had much time to see. It was fun to reminisce about our college years! For lunch the next day we were with a lovely family that Adam met through the university. They are such nice people and have really made us feel at home!

For the Shabbat of Sukkot, we were with our friends the Rosensweigs. It was so wonderful to see them! It had been awhile since we spent time with them. With Adina joining our family and their son joining theirs shortly after, it made it more difficult to get together. Plus they had the additional stress of moving to a new apartment. We had such a nice time with the Rosensweigs as always.

Sukkot went by super quick even though it was a week long. In Israel, it is vacation for a lot of people. The university was closed so Adam was able to take the week off which was great since his dad arrived in the middle of the holiday. It was nice for him to have a real vacation, although he spent a lot of it helping me take care of Adina. She is totally worth it though!

The end of Sukkot is marked by another holiday known as Shmini Atzeret. Outside of Israel, since there are two festival days, Shmini Atzeret is celebrated the first festival day and Simchat Torah is the second festival day. Simchat Torah is a day of celebrating the completion of the Torah. There is a lot of dancing and singing at night and in the morning. At synagogue in the morning, the last portion of the Torah is read in addition to the first portion. It is a really joyful occasion.

In Israel, since there is only one festival day at the end of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated together. There is still lots of dancing and singing, but services are a bit longer since there are extra prayers for Shmini Atzeret that are added to the service. The most important of these additional prayers is the Prayer for Rain. It is at this time in the year that we start asking for rain since we need a good rainy winter to provide the water necessary for agriculture and household needs. This prayer is also said outside of Israel, but has additional meaning here since the rain pretty much starts at the time of Shmini Atzeret.

Last year, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah was the first holiday we celebrated in Jerusalem. We didn’t have a community yet, so we went to different synagogues to experience what they are like. At night we went to a synagogue known as Yakar which is known for its singing during services. When the dancing started, the women stayed in the synagogue to dance and the men went out into the street. It was packed inside, mainly because a lot of the girls from various seminaries in the area came to dance there. I felt pretty alone since I didn’t know anyone. I overcame my shyness and danced as much as I could, but I felt awkward joining in; I always wondered if the girl whose hand I took hold of was appalled by me doing so. Being 18 and 19 year old girls, sometimes their faces confirmed my fears. The following morning we went to Yedidya which is the synagogue that we belong to now. Here, things were a lot more friendly. One of our friends introduced me to some people so I wouldn’t feel so alone. It helped a bit although I still felt a bit out of place.

This year we went to Yedidya for both the evening and the morning. As the dancing began at night, I became overwhelmed with emotion as I remembered the feelings of loneliness I had the same moment last year. Those feelings were gone. The room was filled with familiar faces and attached to me Bjorn style was my beautiful baby girl. Whenever I could, I joined the dancing although I really enjoyed watching and dancing with Adina from the sidelines. She slept through all of the dancing and singing by the way. It was so loud in there but she found it soothing. 🙂 She is an amazingly little girl.

Many of our friends went to a different place for dancing at night, but they were at Yedidya in the morning. It was so nice to see them smile at me and Adina as we walked in a bit late. They encouraged me to dance, especially when Adam had Adina. The holiday made me realize how many wonderful people we have befriended here. They are amazing, and we are thankful for their friendship. It also made me realize how far I have come. It is hard to make a place for yourself when you are a shy introvert. But I have. It really amazing how much of a difference a year makes…

Until next time…

Here are some sukkot pictures…

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4 Responses to Sukkot and Simchat Torah

  1. Stephanie says:

    It looks like people don’t hang fruit in the sukkah, is that an outside of Israel tradition?

    • agamzon says:

      It just happened that either we didn’t take pictures of the insides of the sukkahs or they weren’t decorated. Many (most I think) people here decorate their sukkahs. Popular decorations seem to be tinsel, paper chains, various paper decorations made at gan and plastic fruit. (All of the paper decorations survive here do to the lack of rain.)

  2. Hilary says:

    Great post. Thanks so much for sharing.

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