Sukkot: The Other Harvest Holiday

The Sukkah at the Jewish Community Center of Newton, Mass.

The sukkah at the Jewish Community Center of Newton.

One of the things that I like about Judaism is that the holidays are closely tied to nature, the seasons, and, of course, food. Although I’m not a religious Jew, I do observe many of the holidays in my own fashion, especially if they involve food. Until this year, however, when I realized that the Jewish holiday called Sukkot is a harvest celebration and deeply rooted in agriculture traditions, I never really paid attention to it.

Like other Jewish holidays, the dates for Sukkot change every year, because they’re based on the Jewish lunar calendar. Sukkot is an eight-day holiday that starts four days after Yom Kippur, and since many Jews—including me—fast on Yom Kippur, having a “pro-food” holiday so soon after the fast is very welcome.

Logo for Occupy Sukkot Boston

Occupy Sukkot Boston

Apparently, ancient Jews used to build temporary huts—known as a “sukkah”–near the fields during the harvest so they could stay there overnight instead of schlepping back and forth from field to home. Modern Jews are supposed to use natural materials such as tree branches, sticks, corn stalks, or other agricultural matter to construct their sukkah and to eat at least one meal in it. Some people think that the Pilgrims got the idea for Thanksgiving from Sukkot.

The Occupy [Fill in the blank] movement is, of course, building temporary shelters all over the place. So it’s incredibly appropriate that folks from the Boston Workmen’s Circle and other local groups built an Occupy Sukkot Boston at the Occupy Boston site in Dewey Square. On the day Michelle and I visited, the Sukkah was looking a little bedraggled, but I was told that they would be sprucing it up for a potluck shortly. NPR did a great interview about their efforts. What an appropriate way to observe Sukkot!

Photo of Occupy Boston Sukkot

Leah Madsen (r) from Boston Workmen’s Circle shows me (l) the Occupy Boston Sukkah, which was about to be restored to its initial glory.

The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA)  also chose an apt way to reflect on the holiday’s meaning by holding a forum called “Sustaining Healthy Communities on Sukkot: Food Access.” The event was originally scheduled to be held in the sukkah at the Jewish Community Center in Newton, but was moved inside because the weather was iffy.

The guest speaker, Ned Porter, Director of National and Regional Policy at Wholesome Wave, described how this innovative nonprofit organization provides financial incentives to low-income people and seniors to help them purchase local produce at farmers markets. They even have a Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program that enables health care providers to write a “prescription for fruits and vegetables” so low-income families can purchase healthy produce. Pretty cool.

JALSA itself is taking an innovative approach to try to make healthy food available to all.  They’ve signed on to the Community-Based Prevention in Payment Reform campaign, an effort to lower health care costs and prevent health care problems by asking the Massachusetts legislature to fund preventative community health measures, such as bike lanes and healthy food programs.  JALSA is encouraging other organizations to sign on to this and other initiatives.

Maybe next year, I’ll get my friends together to build a sukkah in my garden and share a meal. Sukkot needs some attention if it’s ever going to catch up to that other harvest holiday in November.

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4 Responses to Sukkot: The Other Harvest Holiday

  1. Tibbs says:

    count me in! I’ve eaten in a sukkah!

  2. GreenShalom says:

    Your blog is very well done!

    Two small tidbits that perhaps, others might comment on:

    In Israel everyone builds a sukkah on their balcony and in their yard – it is perhaps the most publicly visible holiday of the year. And, from what I learned from my Russian friend, Russian Jews favor Sukkot over all the other holidays.

    • myrna says:

      That’s fascinating – maybe if more American Jews build a sukkah, Sukkot would have more visibility. My grandparents were all from Russia, but have passed away. I would love to be able to ask them if they celebrated Sukkot in Russia.

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