September 22, 2010
Among Jewish holidays, I think Hanukkah gets more than its fair share of attention. It’s a relatively minor festival that most likely owes its elevated status in the United States to its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. As a secular Jewish kid in an overwhelmingly Christian neighborhood, I was far more enthralled with the trappings of yuletide—Christmas carols, brightly lit trees and egg nog—than with reciting a Hebrew prayer over a menorah. Sure, latkes were good, and so were the presents, but those nine little candles seemed a little lackluster when compared to the neighbors’ Griswoldian Christmas light displays.
On the other hand, I think another Jewish holiday gets short shrift—Sukkot, which starts tonight at sunset and lasts for seven days. Although my family never observed it (I only learned about it from a book of Jewish holidays my parents gave me), I wish we had; it sounds like fun. It follows soon after Yom Kippur, one of the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar, a day of reflection, atonement and fasting. Sukkot, by contrast, is a purely joyous occasion.
The celebration has two purposes: to give thanks for the harvest and to commemorate the 40 years the ancient Hebrews wandered the desert following their exodus from Egypt. A main feature of the Sukkot observance is the sukkah, a temporary hut built outdoors to remind Jews of their ancestors’ nomadism. (Sukkot observance also used to include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which the pilgrims stayed in temporary shelters.) The sukkah is often elaborately decorated—sometimes with palm fronds, corn stalks or other natural materials—and all meals are eaten inside it; if the weather is nice, some people even sleep in it.
Speaking of meals, because Sukkot is also a harvest celebration, food is a big part of the festivities. Friends are often invited to dine in the sukkah, and, according to Reform Judaism magazine, some Jews follow the tradition of including less fortunate people at the sukkah table.
Stuffed foods and casseroles are especially popular, because they represent the bountiful variety of the harvest and are easy to transport to the sukkah. These can include stuffed cabbage, or holishkes, such as a sweet-and-sour Polish version from the Second Avenue Deli Cookbook (via Epicurious); dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves; or, for a twist on the root vegetable and dried fruit casserole called tsimmes, try Joan Nathan’s southwestern version, stuffed in chilies. On the final day it is traditional to eat kreplach, a meat-filled pasta similar to ravioli or wontons and served in soup or fried for a side dish (Chabad offers a simple recipe).
Stuffing foods? Giving thanks for an abundant harvest? Sound similar to a certain American holiday? In fact, some sources claim the American Pilgrims modeled their first Thanksgiving after the Sukkot festival they were familiar with from the Bible.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.