During most of the year we are happy to make or be invited to a simcha, a special event celebrated with happiness. But simcha also means a general state of joy in fulfilling a mitzvah and it is a central component of the holiday of Sukkot; we are commanded in the Torah to rejoice during the festival. If you are fortunate enough to spend Sukkot in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, simcha is in the very air you breathe. There are celebrations throughout the city with private and public sukkahs erected on every street, balcony and courtyard, from the mini versions sprouting on Geulah and Meah Shearim apartment buildings to the most elaborate you will ever see constructed on rooftops overlooking the Kotel.
Shari Alter of Englewood, the co-owner of Protexsia Plus, an upscale tour and concierge service for travel to Israel (http://www.protexsiaplus.com/), shared some of the must-see sights for anyone going to Israel for Sukkot, and tips on enhancing your own sukkah, whether you are building one in Israel or here. Since she is beginning the holiday in Englewood and finishing it in Israel, she’s doing both!
If you’re going to Jerusalem for Sukkot, get right into the action when you arrive by purchasing a lulav and etrog. There are marketplaces and booths all over the city; in Meah Shearim, the streets are lined with sellers. You can go from table to table in search of the perfect fruit.
One of the most incredible Sukkot experiences for visitors is Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel. “There are 50,000-100,000 Jews with taleism, esrogim and lulavim davening together; it’s a beautiful thing,” said Alter.
Aish HaTorah, overlooking the Kotel, has events and sells tickets so you can view the proceedings from above. Harvey Tannenbaum, Alter’s Israel-based partner, explained in a phone call that people from all over Israel merge in Jerusalem at the Kotel. “All the kohanim who are present are led via microphones by the chief rabbis, word for word, so the entire Kotel area reverberates with the various verses we know,” he said. “It’s an amazing experience for the crowd.” This year, Birkat Kohanim will take place on Wednesday, October 16, with Shacharit beginning at 8:45 a.m., Birkat Kohanim of Shacharit at 9:30 a.m., Mussaf at 10 a.m., and Birkat Kohanim of Mussaf at 10:15 a.m.
Special-interest workshops draw returning families who have seen most of the major sites. “Everybody is doing a workshop in…anything,” said Alter. There are workshops for a host of family-friendly activities like wood-making, jewelry-making and breadmaking. Alter puts together some exclusive workshops for her clients, like one with a blacksmith in Ofra who makes mezuzahs and menorahs over hot coals. “People love off-the-beaten-track experiences, especially if they’ve been there a hundred times,” she said, and recommends a new boat tour in the Dead Sea where the guide will point out rock formations and explain the geology of the area. Scavenger hunts are another fun activity. She works with a company that arranges scavenger hunts for groups in Nachlaot or at the shuk.
Many cultural and entertainment events will be taking place during Sukkot. Check these websites for more ideas: https://www.itraveljerusalem.com/article/sukkot-events-in-jerusalem/,
Simchat Beit Hashoeva (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing) are sukkah-based receptions that recall the celebrations held after the water-drawing ceremony when the Temple stood. Simchat Beit Hashoeva go on all over the city. The organization “Thank Israeli Soldiers” has a public sukkah reception with music, dancing and refreshments. “It’s very leibedik,” Alter said.
The largest sukkah in Israel is built at Safra Square in downtown Jerusalem. The visitor center of Jerusalem has tickets for free tours on Tuesday, October 15, and Wednesday, October 16, which include the city council hall, historical municipal buildings, a model showcasing old/new Jerusalem as well as an observation viewpoint that offers one of the best views of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. For more details visit https://www.touristisrael.com/safra-square-sukkah/8178/.
Just viewing the multitude of sukkahs everywhere is an experience, as many are professionally decorated by Israel’s florists; it’s their busiest season. Homeowners or renters of apartments, who are coming for the holiday, can have their sukkah up and decorated before they arrive. Alter said she has arranged many, including sukkahs just missing the s’chach so people can add the last touch themselves.
Alter said the produce of Israel makes particularly beautiful decorations. “Some of the produce in the marketplace looks like it was just taken out of the garden; the tomatoes look like they’re alive; the pomegranates are so big and beautiful,” she noted. There are flowers and plants you can only get in Israel, like what she calls the “crazy etrog” that looks like it has fingers. Alter arranged a sukkah on the Mamilla Mall rooftop last year in which she had beautiful flowers dangling over mirrored table tops.
For her own sukkah in Englewood she often does an autumnal, Thanksgiving-style theme, with stacks of wheat and hay, hanging wooden branches and cornucopias filled with gourds. Baskets of mums are excellent additions to the sukkah. Alter also recommends draping fabric over the sukkah walls for added beauty. In Israel, florists are used to decorating this way and staple fabric to the frame. You can also drape and tie it with ribbon.
Sukkah decorating differs here because of the possibility of rain—a rare occurrence in Israel at this time of year. Alter recommends laminating sukkah posters to protect them, something unnecessary in Israel. Her Englewood sukkah is larger than her Israeli one, and here she fills it with outdoor furniture to make a spacious retreat.
Alter cautions anyone going to Israel for Sukkot to do some advance preparation, like make restaurant reservations now. While many restaurants in Jerusalem have sukkahs, they are small and can fill up quickly. And if you are planning any activities, keep in mind that the whole country is on vacation, which can create traffic nightmares. Sometimes the Old City is restricted to pedestrians only.
Whether you are here, in Israel, or in both places for Sukkot like Alter, chag sameach and enjoy the simcha.
By Bracha Schwartz