It’s been said that fall is the Southerner’s reward for surviving summer. I believe that with all my heart. Autumn is my favorite season, the one I look toward with almost giddy anticipation.
I don’t just love the changing of leaves but the changing of leaves on certain trees. There’s the maple on Green Street that becomes ablaze with orange and red, rivaled only by the one at the end of our driveway. There’s a poplar on Mount Vernon Road that turns blindingly golden.
There are the crisp mornings that invigorate our elderly cats and have them chasing one another like the kittens they once were.
There are fall festivals and fall foods. Fall sweaters and Halloween costumes. Ragweed is an issue, of course, but you have to take the bitter with the sweet.
Of all the aspects of fall that I love, the one dearest to me is the eight-day Jewish festival of Sukkot. This year, it’s celebrated from Oct. 8-15.
Many non-Jews are familiar with some of the major Jewish celebrations like Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper. Sukkot, however, may not be quite so familiar.
Sukkot is first a historical festival, celebrating the story told in the Book of Exodus in which the Israelites left Egypt and traveled for 40 years in the Sinai Desert before they entered the Holy Land. The holiday’s observances are outlined in Leviticus.
It is also an agricultural festival, a celebration of the autumn harvest similar to Thanksgiving. This is no coincidence. Before coming to the New World, the Pilgrims, themselves victims of religious persecution, spent several years among Sephardic Jews in Holland. The first Thanksgiving celebration was modeled after the Sukkot observances they had previously witnessed.
Traditionally, Jews celebrate the holiday by building a sukkah, a temporary hut symbolizing the ones the Israelites lived in during their desert wanderings and, later, while bringing in their harvests. It can be made from lattice or canvas or any other material as long as it has three sides and the roof is covered loosely with branches so the stars can be seen through them. You can even buy a pop-up sukkah on Amazon.
In Israel, President Reuven Rivlin welcomed children from across the country to come and help him decorate his own sukkah, while inviting the entire nation to visit over the holiday.
Families eat their meals in the sukkah during the week. Some sleep in their sukkah. My husband has fond memories of doing that as a child on Long Island.
Here in North Georgia, the congregation of Dahlonega’s Temple Shalom b’Harim builds a large sukkah on a farm in White County. It’s decorated with dried gourds, children’s drawings and construction paper chains.
We gather there for a service and, of course, a meal. As our rabbi, Mitch Cohen, likes to remind us, the basis of all Jewish holidays is: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
And eat we do. There are autumn dishes utilizing sweet potatoes and pumpkin. Stuffed foods are traditionally eaten at Sukkot – stuffed cabbages, peppers, grape leaves and zucchini. There’s apple compote and pear salad. Members bring foods celebrating their Sephardic or Ashkenazi heritages. There’s challah, the traditional braided egg bread, and glorious desserts.
Another Sukkot tradition is the custom of reciting a prayer while waving what is known as the four species: fronds from the myrtle, date and willow trees tied together to create the lulav, along with a yellow etrog (the citron fruit). There are numerous interpretations of what these gifts from nature represent. My favorite compares the four species to four similar looking parts of the human body: the spine, lips, eyes and heart, teaching us that we should include our entire body in the service of God.
Sukkot is also called Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Rejoicing). It is the only festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice. The traditional greeting is “chag sameach” meaning joyous festival.
No matter what our religious backgrounds, many of us are at most a generation or two away from the farmer’s fields. It’s good to take a moment to reflect on the hands that planted, reaped and transported the bounty we enjoy. It’s good to gather with friends and family while welcoming strangers as thanks are given.
Although Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his poem as a Thanksgiving observance, I’ve always felt it was also apropos for Sukkot:
“For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends. “
Enjoy the fall, y’all.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly.