Sukkot is my favourite Jewish festival. One of its other names, “The Time of our Rejoicing” is especially fitting because it is the most festive and joyous of the High Holidays. Two weeks before Sukkot last year, I decided that I wanted to celebrate the festivities in Israel. Quite fitting I thought, given that this is where Jews have directed their Sukkot prayers since Temple times. In those days, Jews from all over the world also came to celebrate and worship at the Temple. Nowawdays many Jews come to Jerusalem for these holy days. Granted, it’s not quite the same without the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), but a unique and spiritually uplifting experience nevertheless. Israel is in general, an exceptionally charged place, but moreso during the Jewish High Holidays when it quite simply heaves with energy.
We arrived in Jerusalem just before the festival. On the drive in from the airport, we already started to notice a number of makeshift “sukkot” (booths) dotted on the landscape. There are big, small, simple, luxurious, creative, adorned, unadorned, illuminated sukkot. There are sukkot in public squares, in almost all private homes, outside restaurants and cafes, cantilevred off balconies, squashed in between houses, on the tops of buildings – everywhere! We arrived at our friends who were completing decorations on their own sukkah. It’s a religious pastime that takes me way back to my childhood when I used to help decorate our own family sukkah.
I wanted to purchase my own Sukkot prayer accessories – a lulav and etrog, something I have never had the pleasure of doing before. In the diaspora, this means calling up the local synagogue and arranging to buy a ready made imported version, usually from Israel. But as my friends so rightly pointed out, we could go buy our own “fresh” ingredients and assemble our own! They pointed us in the direction of one of the largest lulav and etrog markets in the city – in Jerusalem’s most religious neighbourhood, Meah Shearim. Suffice to say, it was busy! There are loads of stalls selling all the components of the lulav and freshly picked etrogs. Admittedly, we had no idea what we were doing. I found an English-speaking person who was a font of knowledge and expertly took us through the selection process. It took us over an hour but we walked out of there with our own carefully selected lulav and etrog.
During the intermediate days of the festival, we spent the Sabbath and Sunday with friends who live within walking distance of the Western Wall. One of the highlights was a magical dinner they prepared for us in their sukkah on the Friday night. I wish I had been able to photograph the setting. You’ll have to imagine a roof top deck, a flowing white, subtly illuminated sukkah, beautiful silverware, colourful plates and delicious Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. It’s a scene that I will have forever etched in my memory.
The other highlight (aside from a beautiful Shabbat walk through the Old City) was attending Birkat Kohanim (Blessing of the High Priests). During one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, Kohanim from all over Israel come together at the Kotel (Western Wall) for a mass blessing. Thousands of people from all over the country (and the world), descend on the Kotel to receive this auspicious blessing. It was so packed, I could barely get a shot. I found a terrace overlooking the scene, but that was jammed too. As you can see, I opted for a more abstract representation of the event, with the final picture, the only clean shot I could muster!