Judaism is filled with many rituals and symbols that connect us to Jewish life past and present. But while beautiful, these traditions can also hinder our observance by making an absence of the right “equipment” an easy excuse for not celebrating certain holidays.
Sukkot is one celebration that falls into this category. It’s joyous and fun. It’s also important. We’re commanded by the Torah to celebrate it. But many non-Orthodox Jews don’t because there are significant “barriers to entry.”
Most homes don’t own a sukkah or temporary hut representative of the ones the Israelites lived in while wandering the desert. While sukkahs can be purchased, they can cost hundreds of dollars.
The lulav and etrog, two key ritual objects, must be ordered from a synagogue, day school, or Judaic shop (online or retail). Securing an etrog, a lemon-like fruit, and a lulav, a grouping of palm, myrtle, and willow branches, requires advanced planning.
Without these three important symbols, it may seem impossible to celebrate Sukkot at home, but it’s not. Observing the harvest festival without the official equipment simply requires interpretation and creativity.
In my book, From Generation to Generation, I share my family’s early Sukkot celebrations. Our observance started after two years of tending a fruit and vegetable garden in our backyard. We used the holiday to celebrate our hard work and give thanks for our harvest.
The first time we marked the holiday at home, we simply said the blessings before dinner using a construction paper lulav our son made in preschool and a lemon for the etrog. It was a small step, but we gave our imperfect celebration an “A” for effort.
As our garden grew, so did our observance. We graduated from no sukkah to a tent pulled from our camping gear. If it rained, we moved our tent-Sukkah to our son’s playroom where we celebrated under a pretend sky.
After our tent, we moved to interpretative Sukkah design when our son decided to build one using his plastic straws and connectors. Seven years after our first home celebration, we still don’t have a real hut.
That’s okay. For us, the holiday is not about having the right materials, but rather about connecting Jewish values to our everyday life. We do this through our words and actions.
For example, during Sukkot, we discuss the importance of supporting local farmers. I highlight the regionally grown produce and protein I buy at the store, and reinforce our belief in sustainable agriculture.
Share the Harvest
We donate a portion of our garden’s vegetables to a local food pantry. Since the yield from our garden is unpredictable, we created “Share the Harvest.” We invite our son’s class to participate in our holiday mitzvah. This increases the donation and enables others to participate in an act of social justice.
Our Sukkot observance is far from traditional. But we believe that intent and engagement are more important than perfection.
You don’t need all the right ritual objects to celebrate Sukkot at home. What you need is creativity and to think “outside the sukkah.” Here are some ideas to try:
Eat local. Buy close-to-home produce at your area farmers market or grocery store.
Start a garden. Don’t have the space? Find a community garden or plant one in pots.
Share the harvest. While we celebrate, many go hungry. Find a food bank that accepts fruits and vegetables. Donate excess or purchased produce.
Get a hut. No sukkah? Improvise. Use a tent or a trellis that hangs over a patio. Build one from real or play materials.
Jane Larkin is the author of From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity and blogs at interfaithandjewish.blogspot.com. She writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com and interfaith relationships for The Seesaw in The Jewish Daily Forward. Her work has appeared in Tablet magazine, Kveller.com, and Suite101.
A note from Ellen: Later this year, I’ll share more about Jane’s wonderful book. Very personal. Very moving. I have just started reading it — and it’s hard to put down.
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