Sukkot celebrates days of plenty Israel: Jerusalem is busy with the buying of symbolic vegetation and the building of public shelters to observe this Jewish festival.

Sun Journal

October 15, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- In years past, the symbols of the Jewish festival Sukkot arrived prepackaged at Marga Hirsch's synagogue in Pennsylvania. And like her fellow congregants, Hirsch simply picked up her order.

Not this year.

Hirsch, a graduate student on a 12-month fellowship in Jerusalem, spent a sunny afternoon recently wandering from market stall to market stall to buy the four traditional plants associated with the weeklong holiday that begins tonight.

The palm frond, myrtle, willow branches and citron are as emblematic of the holiday as the sukkah, the temporary structures built by religious Jews in back yards and on balconies from Baltimore to Bnei Barak, the ultra-Orthodox community outside Tel Aviv.

Sukkot commemorates the 40 years Jews wandered in the desert after their release from slavery in Egypt. The festival celebrates the bounty of the harvest in the long days before the snap of winter.

"There is something very authentic about choosing, rather than being handed a set with our name on it," says Hirsch, a former medical librarian who grew up in Bethesda. She is now making a career in Jewish education.

Hirsch and her 13-year-old son, Benjamin Kamm, journey first to the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jews where Yiddish is more commonly heard than Hebrew.

They poke their heads into storefronts where the holiday produce is for sale and walk past street-corner piles of palm branches. They eventually find their way to a parking lot on the edge of the neighborhood, where dozens of merchants have gathered just to sell items for Sukkot.

In keeping with the religious tenet of honoring the commandments by obtaining the most beautiful specimens of the four items, mother and son study and scrutinize the produce. But only after watching the experienced at work - the ultra-Orthodox men in beards and black hats who know by heart the specifications that mark a Sukkot standout.

This is not just a matter of aesthetics. Some holiday shoppers pull magnifying glasses and rulers from the pockets of their conservative black suits in pursuit of perfection.

Huddled over bunches of green myrtle, men peer at individual branches, checking to see whether the three leaves originate at the same point. A pair of black-hatted men debate the suitability of a particular palm branch: Is it cracked or bent? Are the tips pointed?

They confer and finally decide to take it.

"It's good. It's kosher," says Moshe Yudelevitch of the palm. A stout man wearing a bushy beard, he is asked why he chose this particular palm.

"Three to four hours I'm looking. I studied for 20 years to know why. And you want to know in five minutes," Yudelevitch scolds. "It's like learning the Torah on one leg."

Zaharia Albasal, a religious Jew from Yemen who immigrated to Israel in 1949, stands before a table full of the yellow and green citrons, some bigger than grapefruit.

"These are Yemenite," he says proudly, cutting into the lemon-scented fruit to show its density. "This is like meat. Not like a lemon. There's no juice inside. If there's juice inside, it's not permitted."

The citron also is supposed to be flawless and pear-shaped and with its tip still intact.

Each of the four plants has symbolic meanings with a variety of interpretations. For example, the citron represents fertility, while myrtle has come to symbolize success and happiness.

The myrtle sold by Albasal comes from the trees in his garden. He began harvesting the delicate branches two weeks ago. Once cut, they are wrapped in wet canvas and stored in a cool place.

Also on sale at the market are colorful and glittery ornaments with which to decorate the sukkah, the temporary hut that symbolizes the Jewish home. After the somber holiday of Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a joyous time when families gather for meals in these huts built from wood and cloth and topped with a leafy roof of evergreens, palms or bamboo.

In Jerusalem, a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the construction of housing fuels fiery political debate and even sparks riots. But the tapping of hammers heard in Jewish neighborhoods these past few days marks the flurry of a building of another kind. The Bible instructs Jews to "dwell" in a sukkah during this week - it's a commandment.

Walk the streets and you will see balconies enclosed by plywood walls or sheets of material. Piles of palm branches and pine boughs fill the street corners, courtesy of the city government. Families usually eat at least one meal in the sukkah; a few sleep there.

When she was a child growing up in Bethesda in the 1950s, Marga Hirsch and her family were among the few Jews in her neighborhood who built a sukkah. Although her parents were not religious, she says, they wanted to celebrate the holiday and have others celebrate with them. The parents adopted what they called an "open sukkah" and welcomed friends and relatives from the area.

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