Jewish Families Dine Under the Stars for Sukkot
The seven-day Jewish Thanksgiving party under a rickety hut recalls Israel’s 40 years of desert wanderings and, for some, the mortgage crisis and economic insecurity of modern life.
If God seemed a grim judge to Jewish families who fasted and sought his favor on Yom Kippur this past Saturday, he shows his “party side” by commanding joyous outdoor feasting, observed this week starting sundown Wednesday.
“Take on the first day the fruit of choice trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40, KJV)
The Feast of Tents (or Tabernacles) called Sukkot (soo-cote) is a seven-day celebration of the land’s abundance, but also a time to invite guests, often to progressive dinners, and to humbly remember harder times.
Out of garages come the poles, lattice, bamboo canes and pipes to construct the temporary dwelling. In come the pumpkins, corn stalks, gourds, palm fronds, candles, and hanging fruit to decorate the seven-day home with a harvest theme.
Links to Modern Worries
“The significance in our own day,” according to Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, “is that we exit the strong and immovable home that we live in, with its sense of permanence, and we embrace the notion of impermanence and portability,” affirming the need for God’s provision.
Sukkot recalls the days when nomadic Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert, living in tents, and led by the fire of God’s presence at night and by a cloud each day.
“The ultimate message,” said Allen, “is that we delude ourselves in thinking that big structures provide real protection. The housing crisis of the last three years has expressed a really significant message of Sukkot. We have all believed that once we got into a home, we were secure, and it’s not so clear anymore that that’s the case.”
This has become all too real for “many victims” of the recent mortgage crisis at Beth Jacob, said Allen, including one especially vocal congregant.
“Two years ago during Sukkot, a member got up and gave a controversial talk saying that if Sukkot had any real meaning, we’d respond and not allow this individual to be foreclosed upon.”
“Two weeks later, this congregant, through his own and other members’ efforts and the help of Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office, was able to end the threat of foreclosure.”
This fight for survival contains a potent message, said Allen. “In reality, sometimes it’s that flimsy structure that provides the greatest protection because our (need for) the presence of God in that context is that much greater.”
Congregants pray, “Spread over us the sukkah of your peace,” he said.
Jewish families also remember to share the fruit of the harvest, rather than hoard or rely on their possessions, affirming their trust in God.
Gourds are symbolically hung from the ceiling of most sukkahs, and a lemon-like “etrog” and three mandated branches (palm, willows and myrtle) take center stage for a ceremonial waving of the fruits of creation.
“Passover in the spring is the planting holiday,” said Allen. “Sukkot is the harvest holiday.”
A Sukkah of Peace
With both holidays, hospitality and God’s universal blessing is a major theme, said Allen, and "Sukkah Hops," like open-house dinners, are common in many Jewish communities.
“You’re defined by who you eat with,” said Allen. “For some it’s a steak dinner at the White House. This is our steak dinner.”
“I was just talking with my wife about our guest list,” he continued. “We invite folks that define our identity, but we also welcome people from all walks of life, Jews and non-Jews, and that really does create a sukkah of peace.”
Welcoming the guest or stranger has been central to the mission of Beth Jacob families, according to Barbie Levine who has coordinated the effort for more than a decade.
“I’m the matchmaker,” and she doesn’t mean the romantic kind from "Fiddler on the Roof," she clarified.
“I feel very fortunate to have a community to celebrate with,” said Levine, “so I help anyone who lacks friends to find a suitable place.”
Some guests have special dietary (perhaps kosher eating) needs. “Others don’t drive on Sabbath and need a dinner within walking distance of the synagogue. Others are families with children looking for kids their age.”
The most heart-warming matches, she said, are “those in which the host makes a standing invitation to visit their home.”