Sukkot is always a drastic transition, shifting from one of the most solemn days of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, to one of the most joyous of celebrations.
In Baltimore, families will eat and sleep in their sukkahs — temporary, hand-built abodes. Many will host Shabbat dinners, and others, through local organizations, will have the sukkahs come to them.
The Hebrew word “sukkot” directly translates into English as “booths,” referencing the structures that Jewish families build. The meaning of the holiday is two-fold.
Commonly, Sukkot is known as an agricultural holiday to celebrate the harvest. In fact, some scholars speculate that the American tradition of Thanksgiving is derived in some sense from Sukkot, as the incredibly devout pilgrims would have looked to the Bible for an appropriate celebration of the harvest.
One of the most important traditions is to shake the lulav and etrog in six directions to symbolize that God is everywhere. An etrog is a citrus fruit native to Israel that could easily be mistaken for a lemon — it is known as a citron in English. The lulav, however, is a bundle composed of three separate plants. It derived its namesake from the single palm branch that it contains, which is known as a lulav in Hebrew. The bundle also contains two willow branches and three myrtle branches. Although there are a few interpretations of why we use these four separate plants, all interpretations share a common theme — that all parts are different, but a mitzvah is performed when all of the elements are united.
In spite of this agricultural significance, Sukkot is better known as a commemoration of the 40-year pilgrimage of the Israelites through the desert. The sukkahs that we build today are reminiscent of the temporary shelters in which the Israelites would have dwelled.
Contemporary Judaism sees Sukkot practiced differently in many households. Some families will build a sukkah to commemorate the holiday without utilizing it, while others will eat and sleep in their sukkah for every night of the holiday.
Rabbi Kushi Schusterman of the Harford Chabad said, “People in Chabad believe in sleeping in the sukkah, but Halachah, the Jewish law based on the Talmud, says that if you are uncomfortable dwelling in the sukkah, then you do not need to — there is a fine balance. We will eat and drink in the sukkah even if it is raining. However, with the spiritual energy that permeates the sukkah, how can you sleep? The second Chabad Rebbe, Dovber Schneuri, said, ‘I am unable to sleep because that energy is so powerful.’ Supposedly he would not sleep on Sukkot.”
Yohanan and Tamar Schulman, local Baltimore parents, have been putting up a sukkah every year. “I have been putting up the sukkah for 20 years now,” said Yohanan. “It is a tradition that I was taught by my parents, and I like to do it with my own children now.” He and his children sleep in their sukkah.
For many local families, Sukkot is a time to come together and celebrate. Caleb Gitlitz, 13, and his grandmother, Linda Howard, have been spending at least one night together in their sukkah for years. It started when Gitlitz’s family lived in New York.
“I used to go to New York to visit them for some holidays,” said Howard. “They had put a sukkah up and the kids were so excited. Caleb must have been 5. He has always been into his religion, he lives it every day. He wanted to sleep in the sukkah, so when his father was skeptical, I slept in it with him.”
It has been a tradition of theirs ever since. Howard said that it means a lot to her because now the boys are much more grown up, but they are still just as enthusiastic about sleeping in the sukkah and spending time with her as ever.
“We always play cards and games in the sukkah; last year, we played Rummikub,” shared Gitlitz. “The holiness of the sukkah, I just love being out there. When we lived in New York, sometimes we would ask a friend or two for help building the sukkah, because working on it brings out a lot of the life of Sukkot. Being with my bubbie in the sukkah is a huge part of the year and our relationship. Every Sukkot, we will be singing, shouting l’chaims; it is so spiritually uplifting. A lot of people that we invite over don’t have a sukkah of their own, so we want them to experience it, and they want to experience it too.”
Aiden Gitlitz, Caleb’s younger brother, added, “I love sleeping in the sukkah with my bubbie because we have a lot of fun, and I get the feeling of what it was like to sleep in a sukkah outside for the Jews in Israel.”
“It really has made a strong impact on our kids,” said Teri Gitlitz, Caleb and Aiden’s mother. “Our kids really thrive in the joy of the holidays, and it is really special because they know that they get to sleep in the sukkah with their bubbie.”
Another of the Gitlitz family’s traditions is for each of the grandchildren to create an edible sukkah. “I bring supplies and they each have a theme,” explained Howard. “The kids will use their Legos too. Sometimes the theme is biblical, sometimes the theme is “Star Wars.” It is Caleb’s favorite part because we are making memories together. He has told me that when he grows up and has his own family, he wants to continue the tradition with them.”
Lieba Gornbein looks forward to “sitting in the sukkah and seeing
the stars above, opening our minds to what Hashem has to bring us.”
Ben Temin has always enjoyed Sukkot and wanted to build a sukkah, but living in an apartment the past few years rendered him unable to do so, as “a sukkah has to be exposed to the sky and our porch was covered.” This year, he and his wife, Renee, were determined to celebrate properly, so they found a kit and decided to build their sukkah on the lawn in front of their building.
Apparently, the Temin family was not the only one determined to celebrate Sukkot in spite of an inopportune environment. “Everyone in our building who wants to will build [a sukkah] out front, and the management tolerates it,” said Temin. “We would like to sleep in the sukkah, but it depends on the weather, and it is not a private area, so safety is a consideration.”
Last year, the Temins had made arrangements to go out of town for Shabbat during the intermediate days of the holiday. However, when their plans fell through, they were at a loss for where or how to celebrate. “We were amazed because we were at home and everyone was so hospitable. All of our neighbors invited us into their sukkahs.” This year, Ben and Renee intend to invite friends, family and neighbors for meals in their own sukkah.
As a time of renewal, reminiscence and reflection, Sukkot remains a cherished holiday for many Jews, regardless of their denomination or level of religious engagement.
Last week, the JT stopped by the Park Heights JCC to speak with Jews of all backgrounds who generously provided their take on the season and how they’re planning on observing.
“We’ll mainly have our family there for the Shabbos of Sukkot,” said Maia Bar Am of Indian Village.
By family, Bar Am means her husband, “four girls and two boys,” who will join her along with her sister who will stay with the rest of the family in their sukkah.
“We usually take the kids on some kind of chol hamoed outing,” Bar Am continued, adding that this year was particularly special for the family due to her setting up their sukkah alone with her older girls and 7-year-old son.
“My husband works six days a week now,” Bar Am said. “So I told him, ‘Yeah, I bet the girls and I could set it up ourselves!’”
Menlo Drive resident Ken Addess will also stay home for Sukkot, though he said he may go apple picking with his family.
“We have a beautiful sukkah,” Addess said. “It’s attached to the house and we enjoy spending time there. We can leave our comfortable house and go there to remember what our purpose in life is. That’s what I usually talk about at the table.”
Lieba Gornbein will celebrate at home with family and friends too. They’ll talk about the harvest and the coming of the new year, Gornbein continued.
Gornbein looks forward to “sitting in the sukkah and seeing the stars above, opening our minds to what Hashem has to bring us.”
“Sukkot is great,” Gornbein said. “I love sitting in the sukkah. Hopefully it won’t rain and won’t be too cold!”
Gornbein’s particular sukkah has been dutifully decorated over the years by her children with homemade trinkets: “little sparkling lights and birds hanging from the ceiling.”
With her children coming home from as far as New York, Gornbein said she’s delighted to have them all together at once.
But not everyone has made arrangements so far in advance. Some prefer to wait until the last minute to decide where they’ll go, who they’ll be with and just what they’ll be doing this Sukkot.
“I don’t really have a plan yet,” said Jill Klein. “I’m sort of an impromptu type of person.”
Bringing Sukkot to the People
During the last four years, Charm City Tribe Rabbi Jessy Gross has helped Jews in Baltimore to celebrate Sukkot by bringing the festivities to them, similar to a longtime Chabad outreach activity.
With a pickup truck serving as the foundation, the Charm City Tribe mobile sukkah becomes a scene of awe among many passers-by this time of year who stop to get a better view of the structure on its annual tour.
Gross, senior director of Jewish Learning and Life at the JCC, said the opportunity to raise awareness on sukkahs to those unfamiliar with the temporary hut is something she relishes.
“Last year, one of my favorite things that happened was when we popped up at a Ravens tailgate, a couple of gentlemen were walking by, and they were like, ‘Oh, those are the Jewish huts that people in Pikesville put up,’” Gross said with a laugh. “I would say that [the mobile sukkah] spikes curiosity, and people like to participate and to learn and experience what it’s like to be a part of ours.”
This year, the Charm City Tribe mobile sukkah will make stops at HomeSlyce in Federal Hill, Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point and Union Craft Brewery in Hampden. In two of the locations, Max’s Taphouse and Union Craft Brewery, there will be Union’s Anthem Golden Ale on tap, which Gross expects to be a big draw.
Also at Max’s Taphouse, Charm City Tribe and Repair the World Baltimore will hold an interactive service activity designed to give back to those less fortunate. Together, members from both organizations will package mugs of soups that will be donated to different food distribution centers throughout the city, including Meals on Wheels.
Josh Sherman, a program associate for Repair the World Baltimore, said he’s looking forward to connecting the community while informing young people of the holiday meaning and tradition.
“Repair the World has a strong partnership with Charm City Tribe and is absolutely in love with the concept of a mobile sukkah,” Sherman said. “We should be bringing the Judaism to you, not the other way around. We hope to engage Jews in their 20s and 30s in some of the mitzvot of Sukkot outside of the traditional and institutionalized Jewish spaces.”
Gross, meanwhile, has taken an active role in bringing Sukkot to the forefront at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC — literally.
For the first time she can recall, Gross said there will be a sukkah in the Owings Mills JCC’s front circle, allowing members to participate in a number of programs offered inside the physical location. The 12-by-24-foot structure, four times the size of the previous sukkahs tucked away in the courtyard, will house yoga classes, staff gatherings, Shabbat dinners and more.
“At Owings Mills, I think we really want to give people the chance to see what the celebration of Sukkot can be,” Gross said. “We think by creating a lot of different opportunities for people to come into the sukkah with a purpose, it can help introduce them to all the possibilities around Sukkot.”
It’s all part of an effort that she hopes will continue to generate an increased buzz around Sukkot.
For more information, visit JCC.org/Sukkot and facebook.com/CharmCityTribe.