Bringing International Style to your Sukkah
Here in the United States, it is common for our Sukkah decorations to align with other autumn and harvest traditions. In the end, our tables may be filled with pumpkins and other gourds that signal cooler weather ahead. A variety of baked apple goods and delicious squash dishes frequently appear on the dinner table inside the temporary shelter under the stars.
As your family commemorates the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after they were freed from slavery in Egypt, may we suggest some more exotic traditions from across the globe? Take a trip around the world this Sukkot and bring in some international flair!
In northeastern India, the Bnei Menashe Jewish community will also celebrate the holiday this year. They are thought to be descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes. Though Jews in India did not observe Sukkot for many centuries, they did participate in a harvest-themed festival around the same time of year: Khiricha San, celebrated with a pudding made of coconut milk, nuts, and sweets. As they began to reclaim their Israeli heritage, Sukkot made a cultural come back. To give your Sukkah an Indian look, you’ll just need to construct it from the branches of a coconut palm.
Like the Bnei Menashe, Bukharian Jews from Asia are thought to be descendants of a lost tribe. Many of them made their way to Israel from Uzbekistan generations ago. They are known to build their Sukkahs for comfort. It makes sense: if you’re going to sleep outside for a few days, you may as well make it cozy. You might find rugs on the ground and pillows to lounge on. Colorful fabric is hung from the walls, and you might find fruit, like grapes and pomegranates, hanging from the ceiling while an archway of willow branches greets you at the entrance.
Barley, wheat, pomegranates, dates, figs, olives, and grapes are known as the seven different species of the Land of Israel. In a traditional Syrian Sukkah, you may find all of them used as decorations in some way. Hung from the ceiling, you’ll also find Star of David or circle-shaped pastries called biscochos, which are made with wine, cinnamon, and sugar. And be sure to bring some books along: Syrian Jews will dedicate their nights in the Sukkah to the study of the Zohar, Deuteronomy, and Psalms.
As we continue our journey westward, we’ll find unique Sukkot traditions upheld by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Would your Sukkah guests appreciate an evening with the ushpizin? (These are the seven heavenly ‘founding fathers of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David). Decorate your Sukkah with intricate paper cut-outs of these special visitors who are rumored to stop by during the holiday. Another unique decorative element are small figurines of bird crafted from eggshells.
A Moroccan Sukkah would be a true feast for the eyes for friends and families if you followed these traditions. Even the lulav is decorated with gold threads or ribbon. Bamboo sticks are used in the construction of the shelters, which are often built on rooftop terraces. Colorful silks and other fabrics are hung on decorative hooks. Lanterns of bronze or copper provide soft lighting and add ambiance. And space is made for “Elijah’s Chair”, adorned with Moroccan pillows and books that inspire learning.
Moving on to Western Europe, we can look to Italy for some of the most elaborately decorated sukkahs, especially if we were to travel back in time. Painted or engraved panels depicting scenes from the Torah would dress up the Sukkah walls. If that sounds like too much trouble for your backyard shelter this year, you might prefer the ritual table setting favored by Venetian Jews today. The tavola dell’ angelo – or ‘the angel’s table’ – consists of corn, pomegranates, and a sweetened yeast cake with dried fruit, called bollo.
Dating back to the 1800’s, you could come across unique Sukkot traditions in the Alsace region of France. The Jewish community created festive decorations for their temporary outdoor shelters, with rose branches, seasonal fruits, like apples and grapes, and paper chains in yellow and blue. They wouldn’t seem terribly unusual until you examined the Sukkah’s entrance, where you would have discovered rooster feathers staked into a red onion. If you have some rooster feathers on hand, this is a terrific way to ward off evil spirit.
Go big, go home, or go to Safra Square in Jerusalem. The Sukkah at Safra Square is the largest Sukkah in Israel and sits at the seat of Jerusalem’s municipal government. Clocking in at 11,000 square feet, there’s plenty of room for everyone and entertainment for all ages. Music, meet and greets, arts and crafts, and more. This would probably be difficult to replicate in the typical backyard, but there’s something to be said for a space where neighbors can come together to celebrate…
We invite you to bring some traditions from elsewhere in the world to your own Sukkah this year. No matter where you are, what hangs on the walls, and what fruits and vegetables adorn the table, be sure to spend some time looking up. Whether your roof is constructed of bamboo, coconut palms, or branches from the maple tree in your yard, Jews all over the world will see the same stars that you see. These are the same stars that our ancestors viewed during their wanderings.