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entries tagged with: Sukkot


In awe of schach: Searching for the perfect sukkah covering

Edmon J. Rodman
Published: 17 September 2010
Palm fronds are a favorite form of schach for sukkahs in the Los Angeles area. Edmon Rodman

His 14-foot-long pole saw in hand, Paul Nisenbaum is ready to head out into the great urban forest in a search for schach. The Los Angeles teacher and small businessman is among the many Jews throughout North America who will search their neighborhoods, from wilderness to city center, for a suitable sukkah roof covering

With Sukkot, the holiday when Jews construct and live in fragile, temporary booths coming a few days after Yom Kippur, the hunt is on.

According to halacha, the schach should be something that once grew in the earth but is no longer attached to the earth. Once the schach is in place, most of the roof of the sukkah should be covered, with the test being that once inside, you see more shade than sun.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century leader of kabbalistic teaching, even taught there is a connection between schach and divine inspiration.

Mats made of bamboo seem to the norm in America, but for Nisenbaum and others, only something more directly connected to their environment will bring inspiration.

“I want the real thing,” said Nisenbaum, who long before the holiday scouts out suitable palm trees in his neighborhood. “While I’m walking to shul, I spot the good ones.”

Up north, in Fairbanks, Alaska, Randall Miller looks to the natural resources of his area for schach.

“We use local stuff from the forest,” he said. “Spruce boughs some years, and on others tall purple flowers called fireweed,” Miller said. “We use the long stalks, which later in the season turn a purplish red.”

Miller, whose sukkah temperatures drop to between 30 and 0 degrees, added that “sometimes at night we see the stars through the roof, other times the stars and the falling snow.”

In New York City, a national sukkah design contest called Sukkah City is challenging artists, architects, designers, and sukkah enthusiasts to become halachically creative. Using Jewish law as well as city ordinance as design criteria, contest organizers Joshua Foer and Roger Bennett asked entrants for their sukkah visions.

Recently a panel named the 12 finalists, whose sukkahs will be constructed in Union Square Park in the days before Sukkot. New Yorkers will vote on and pick the winner, which will remain standing for the holiday as the “People’s Choice Sukkah.”

Foer says for the roofs, “there are lots of possibilities beyond mats.” He noted that among the 600 entries, there were designs with roofs of “dried flowers, little pieces of wood veneer, fallen leaves,” and one whose creators wanted to use an invasive species of grass.

One of the 12 finalists, Volkan Alkanoglu, a Los Angeles architect and teacher who had never before been in a sukkah, used rattan for schach for his entry titled “Star Cocoon.” The cocoon’s curved support structure will be made of cane.

Alkanoglu, who along with his team designed the sukkah on a computer, saw the unique materials and design parameters as a way “to bring people together.”

Beyond contests and foraging, many still love their mats — especially those who live in desert climates, where green schach quickly dries up and shrivels.

When Howard Scharfman of Tucson, Ariz., wants to search for schach in a desert region that he describes “as cactus and more cactus,” he visits his storage shed. Scharfman likes to use a woven bamboo mat to cover his sukkah, where he says temperatures average 100 degrees.

“It’s a renewable resource,” he said. “I can use it year after year.”

In the Midwest, one community is going to the farm for inspiration. East Side Veggies, a project of Cong. Shaarey Tikvah in the Cleveland area, is selling bundles of green cornstalks harvested from nearby Geauga County for $10 a bunch.

“It’s not your typical bamboo matt covering,” said the schach sale coordinator, Matthew Fieldman. “The stalks are literally right from the field. This was alive not long ago, and it presents just a different atmosphere with nothing manufactured.

“We are supporting Jewish values by reducing our footprint,” added Fieldman, who used cornstalks the previous Sukkot for his own sukkah. “We are supporting local agriculture and supplying something that every part of the Jewish community can use.”

Fieldman says the cornstalks, which are some 6 feet “long, lush, and green,” are supplied by an Amish farming collective.

“They completely knew what Sukkot is,” Fieldman said. “They respect what we are doing.”

This year he ordered enough cornstalks for about 100 families.

The previous Sukkot, Fieldman observed that the stalks, which start green before gradually turning brown, reminded him of the transitional nature of Sukkot and of life.

“Once upon a time I used bamboo mats,” Fieldman said, but “then I met the farmers who grew this corn.”


Editor’s note: Jewish groups harvested reeds for sukkot roofs on Sunday at the Teaneck Creek Conservatory.


Celebrating Sukkot, Sri Lankan style

Published: 01 October 2010

Six years and one tsunami have passed since I last visited Sri Lanka. This time I was invited by my parents, Leah and Jack Lore, to join them on tour as a photography guide while they lead a group of 30 Israelis to Sri Lanka for Sukkot. This was quite an offer I could not resist. I took off some vacation days from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades — where I work as assistant marketing director and staff photographer — packed all my gear, and prepared for a 27-hour long flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital (including a seven-hour stopover in London). This was a tight and risky travel plan, as I had to meet the group without delay or else I would be traveling alone into the jungle. Fortunately, there were no delays on any of the flights, and I landed on Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, erev Sukkot, and joined the group that flew in from Israel that morning and landed just one hour before me.

Tovit Lore is pictured in the reception area of the Kandalama Hotel.

This is the 15th time my parents, who specialize in tourism to Sri Lanka, have traveled here from Israel over the course of seven years.

A friendly local guide called Prielle (which we converted to Hebrew as “Pri–El,” the fruit of God), and a very comfortable big golden bus waited to take us all into the heart of the 65,000 square-kilometer Island to celebrate our first evening of Sukkot in the Kandalama Hotel, near the village of Dambulla.

This magnificent hotel is almost invisible, as it is totally merged into the jungle and stretches for more than half a mile on six levels that follow the curves of a mountain. I cannot think of a more suitable setting to have a Sukkot celebration. The hotel is designed with open hallways and patios on every level, covered with tropical creepers, palms, and branches. Two long tables covered in white were set for us in one of these patios. The group brought with them from Israel kiddush wine, a beaker, challahs, candles, dates, and pomegranates. I was in charge of the sukkah decorations — “Welcome to our sukkah” signs in Hebrew, and gold-leafed cards depicting the seven fruits of Israel (shivat Haminim). By 7 p.m. the tables were ready for the Israeli guests, who came down to the patio only to find out that two minutes before, a sudden tropical thunderstorm had begun. The hotel staff immediately salvaged our setting by moving the tables into the dining room. We were not going allow the storm to spoil the happiness of this first evening of Sukkot. The ceremony took place near the sukkah, behind the glass doors, and the songs of Israel were heard all over the dining room by the Jewish guests as well as the Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.

Our group was joined by members of the temporary Jewish community of Sri Lanka. The local Chabad rabbi, Mandi Crombi, who lives in Colombo with his wife Talia and their two sons, said that there is no Jewish community in the country, only a handful of temporary residents on professional work contracts. Also, two more groups and a few dozen youngsters and honeymooners came to Sri Lanka for Sukkot. Crombi is here to offer young Israeli travelers, primarily divers and surfers, a place to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

The next day, we visited a hut with a palm-leaf thatched roof belonging to a local farmer. It looked just like a sukkah. The mother and her three daughters demonstrated how they prepare their traditional pita breads from hand-ground millet and water, baked quickly on banana leaves over burning coal, as well as the spicy sumbol sauce made of hand-ground coconut, chili, and shallots. I wondered how far this ancient tradition was from what the sons of Israel experienced on their journey from Egypt to Israel.

Sri Lanka, originally called Ceylon, was founded by a prince from northern India. It has been ruled by 180 kings over a period of 2,300 years. The island has a population of 21 million; 75 percent are Buddhist and the rest are Hindu, Catholic, and members of Muslim minorities.

Rained out of the sukkah, visible through glass doors, the visitors celebrated indoors. From left are guests Margalit Man, Itzik Flint, and Leah and Jack Lore. Tovit Lore

My parents have fallen quite in love with this magical island and its extremely hospitable people. They have many friends here, from government officials and their families to a local fisherman in the market, the farmer’s family, a local jeweler, and Sandya, an English teacher at an elementary school that all their groups visit. My mother has a theory that one of the lost tribes of Israel migrated to this Island and may have assimilated into the local population. After visiting the local villages, learning their customs and traditions, and participating in some wedding ceremonies, they noticed that some rural customs include interesting similarities to Jewish customs: For centuries Sri Lankans used a lunar calendar (only recently changed) and celebrate on the full moon. They marry under a hand-held “chuppah” under the sky. They celebrate, as in biblical times, the beginning of the year in the month of Nissan, and in this celebration they refrain from all bread and grain, aside from rice.

Whether the Sri Lankans have any link to Jewishness does not concern me. What I have noticed is that they are kind, warm, smiling, and hospitable people, and visiting their Island is truly a magical experience.

I have seven more days of sights, safari, elephant rides, ancient archeology, Buddhist temples, botanical and spice gardens, market places, turtle hatcheries, Cinnamon Island, and the tropical beach.

I will be returning with many photos taken by the group members and myself that will be posted on web and shared with our friends and the community at:

See you all on Monday, Oct. 4, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.


Week for mockeries at the United Nations

An effigy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad occupies center stage at a protest outside the United Nations on Sept. 23. Courtesy Iran180

NEW YORK – During last week’s gathering of world leaders for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly, some of the proceedings inside were nearly as farcical as the proceedings outside.

In one Jewish-organized protest on the street near the United Nations, activists wearing rainbow-colored wigs, mini-skirts, and pom-poms danced around a man wearing a massive effigy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s head and clad in a nuclear suit and chains. Behind him stood an activist in a Hawaiian shirt wearing an Obama mask on his head, a rubber octopus on his hand, and carrying a sign that read, “No Nukes for Iran.”

It was all part of a mock trial of the Iranian leader organized by a group called Iran180.

Inside the U.N. plenum, Ahmadinejad by many accounts was making a mockery of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The United States arranged the 9/11 attacks “to save the Zionist regime,” Ahmadinejad declared in his Sept. 23 address. Suggesting that U.S. officials at the highest levels were complicit in the attacks, he called on the United Nations to establish “an independent fact-finding group” to investigate.

The U.S. delegation walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech, as did all 27 European Union delegations, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Costa Rica.

As is his custom, the Iranian president also used his annual speech at the General Assembly to lash out against Israel.

“This regime,” he said of Israel, “which enjoys the absolute support of some Western countries, regularly threatens the countries in the region and continues publicly announced assassinations of Palestinian figures and others, while Palestinian defenders are labeled as terrorists and anti-Semites. All values, even the freedom of expression in Europe and the United States, are being sacrificed at the altar of Zionism.”

It wasn’t the only attack Israel faced last week at the United Nations.

A day earlier, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council issued its report on the May 31 flotilla incident in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists in a confrontation aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The report called the actions by Israeli naval commandos “disproportionate and brutal,” saying they “demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence” and calling for “prosecution against Israel for willful killing and torture.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the report “biased and distorted.” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it “extremely fair and based on solid evidence. We appreciate that. It meets our expectations.”

A separate inquiry by the United Nations commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is ongoing.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, Israeli representatives did not respond to Ahmadinejad’s tirade because the speech took place on the Sukkot holiday and Israel’s U.N. delegation was absent.

President Obama made the case for Israel in his own speech to the U.N. General Assembly, which preceded Ahmadinejad’s.

“After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” Obama said. “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.”

The U.S. president also called on the world community to back Israeli-Palestinian peace with deeds and not just words.

“Those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down,” Obama said.

“Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians, but these pledges must now be supported by deeds,” he said.

“Those who have signed on to the Arab peace initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps toward the normalization that it promises Israel,” he said, referring to the 2003 Saudi-sponsored plan that offered Israel comprehensive peace in return for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.

Following Ahmadinejad’s remarks several hours later, the U.S. mission to the United Nations issued a statement that “Rather than representing the aspirations and good will of the Iranian people, Mr. Ahmadinejad has yet again chosen to spout vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable.”



The religious-industrial complex


How dear a hadar tree’s fruit can be

The reason why a lemon-like fruit costs so much

Abigail Klein LeichmanCover Story
Published: 23 September 2011
Joshua D. Klein with a Buddha’s Hand etrog tree in California. Inset, Etrog trees can bear fruit of all sizes and shapes; Klein shows that an etrog can grow as big as your head.

There is no more earthy holiday than Sukkot, when Jews not only are supposed to eat their meals outside in a hut, but are also commanded to gather four species of vegetation — a closed date palm frond, myrtle boughs, willow branches and citron fruit — in accordance with Leviticus 23:40. “On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord seven days.”

Sukkot, after all, not only commemorates the days of desert wanderings, but also is a thanksgiving for the autumn fruit harvest.

The myrtle and willow are inexpensive commodities. The frond (lulav) and citron (etrog) are a different story. Most are imported from Israel — although they grow in other places, including Morocco, Mexico, California, and Texas. Other factors described below also push up the price.

Keeping the species fresh

How does one keep the Four Species fresh throughout Sukkot? Said Joshua D. Klein: “One word: plastic. Etrogim do not need refrigeration, nor do lulavim (which should not be put in water). Hadasim [myrtle] and aravot [willow] can best be kept in damp toweling. I find it best to wrap damp newspaper around the leafy bits, and put the whole thing in a plastic zip-up bag (not the hard plastic scabbards that some folks use) at room temperature.

A set of the Four Species purchased from a synagogue or Judaica vendor, therefore, can set you back $25 to upwards of $100, depending on the quality you are seeking. The priciest piece is the thick-rinded etrog, which does not have much market appeal in the West except as a ritual object, or an ingredient in fruitcakes or liquers. The Chinese use an ornamental citron variety called Buddha’s Hand both for medicinal purposes and as a sacrificial offering. Japanese use it as a New Year’s gift.

The Jewish Standard asked Joshua D. Klein, a Cornell-trained plant researcher in the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s Unit for Agriculture, for the lowdown on this bumpy, fragrant yellow (or green) symbol of Sukkot. Klein is based at the Volcani Institute near Rehovot.

Q: How many farms in Israel grow etrogim?

A: There are about 10 growers of any consequence, with about three dominating the market. Israel has around 1,000 dunams [247 acres] of etrog orchards.

Q: About how many etrogim are exported each year?

A: Probably half a million. The general demand [including in Israel] is for about 1.2 million. Most are exported as part of sets of all four minim [species].

Q. When is the growing season?

A: Etrogim, like lemons and some other citrus, flower twice a year — around Tu B’Shvat [January-February] and around Shavuot [May-June]. The later flowering gives the better-quality fruit. Actually, the best fruit are those from flowers that open around Sukkot and ripen around Tu B’Shvat, since citrus is a winter fruit. Alas, the market for etrogim is very weak in winter!

Q. When does the fruit get picked for shipment?

A: The harvest begins in Tammuz [June-July] and goes all the way through mid-Tishrei [High Holy Days season], depending on the market, with peak activity for export from 15 Av [mid-August] to 30 Elul [Rosh Hashanah eve].

Q. Why does an etrog look like a lemon but cost like a Cadillac?

A: Etrog is one of three primordial citrus, the others being mandarin and pammelo. All other citrus are descended from crosses and recrosses of these three. So it is more accurate to say that a lemon looks like an etrog.

There are about five major commercial varieties of etrog, each of which has adherents for both perceived beauty and shape and for an extended tradition down the generations that this is the “true” etrog.

The cost of etrogim is directly related to the demand: All varieties of etrog trees bear many fruit of all sizes and shapes, and theoretically the vast majority are kosher [meaning fit for use in the Four Species bundle]. However, the market keeps demanding more and more “ideal” etrogim, with nary a blemish, which means that each fruit is tended to carefully, including tying it to keep it from rubbing against other fruits or branches or thorns (etrog trees are very thorny) and packaging it separately even at the wholesale stage to ensure no bruising. This “personal handling” from the orchard to the packing house adds to the cost to the consumer.

Each tree is sprayed to make sure there are no pests at all (most other fruit orchards tolerate some insects) and the trees are irrigated very thoroughly so that the fruit will be of commercial size by Elul, when actually it “wants” to be ready two to four months later.

Q: The etrog may have an extension called a pitam at one end, where the flower was pollinated. An etrog with or without a pitam is fit for ritual use, but an etrog with a pitam that breaks off on the first day of Sukkot is sometimes considered no longer “kosher.” Is it better to buy an etrog with or without a pitam?

A: You can find rabbinic responsa with points of view on both sides....Actually, most citrus have a pitam when young, but it usually falls off by the time the fruit is about 30 days old. Exceptions are etrog and bergamot, the orange used to flavor Cointreau and Earl Gray tea, both which tend to retain the pitam (although the Yemenite etrog variety usually doesn’t). Since [Hebrew University Prof.] Eliezer Goldschmidt discovered back in the ‘60s that a certain common chemical used in citrus orchards could also promote retention of the pitum, growers can provide etrogim with and without. Pitam-less etrogim can cost more due to market demand.

Despite Egypt ban, no lulav shortage seen

On Sept. 18, the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry announced a ban on all lulav exports — to Israel, Europe, and North America — through the end of the year. In previous years, it threatened such bans, but never carried through.

The lulav (closed date palm frond) is also cultivated at northern kibbutzim and some in other areas of Israel and Gaza, but more are grown in El Arish in the northern Sinai. For the past three decades, since Israel ceded the Sinai to Egypt, about a million of these Jewish ritual items have been imported annually from the fields of El Arish.

However, the Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to rev up domestic production to make up the difference. Minister Orit Noked asked to meet with Egyptian officials in August to assure no problems in obtaining the fronds. When those efforts failed, she issued a press release stating that the ministry will assist Israeli growers “to significantly increase the number of palms to be provided for the holiday” to fully meet domestic and foreign demand. These farmers are expected to provide about 650,000 “regular” lulavim plus another 200,000 “fancy” ones, according to the release.

The ministry is also giving special import licenses to growers in Spain, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite these arrangements. Special inspection stations are being set up to make sure the imports do not carry plant diseases.

The release concludes that growers have pledged not to raise prices despite the extra work involved in meeting market needs in time for Sukkot.

An inquiry from The Jewish Standard to the Egyptian embassy in Israel as to the reason for the ban went unanswered by press time.


Naturally relevant

Published: 30 September 2011

Mystical lulav movements from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Larry Yudelson
Published: 28 September 2012

The custom of shaking the lulav in all directions — to each of the four points of the compass, and then up and down — originally symbolized an acknowledgment of God’s all-encompassing presence. But in chasidic thought, the practice took on other symbolic, spiritual meanings. Chasidism brought the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah to the masses, reinterpreting longstanding traditions and imbuing them with the spiritual meaning.

For Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the shaking of the lulav was a meditation that could last half an hour. Each direction had significance; each represented a different prayer, the wish for a different blessing for the coming year. And in the years that I prayed at his synagogue before his death in 1994, the lulav ceremony was, for me, the most meaningful of the services of this holy day season.

I have adapted his teaching as I remember hearing it and as I have posted it on my website,

First, face right. Right in kabbalah signifies the attribute of chesed — kindness, mercy, overwhelming beneficence. It’s a reminder of Abraham, master of hospitality. Facing right, slowly shaking the lulav in and out three times, think about all the chesed, the giving in your life, and pray to God to perfect it. Do you find it too hard to be generous? Or are you suffering from an excess of generosity, of kindness, of love? “We don’t know when to love and how to love and we always put so many borders in the wrong place,” Carlebach said. Facing right, pray for God to grant you the proper measure of chesed.

Then face left. Left in Kabbalah is gevurah — strength, strict judgment, limits. Gevurah is symbolized by Isaac — bound for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, unflinching, accepting of judgment. Take this opportunity to think of the limits, the judgments in your life. Are your circumstances too confining? Do you need more boundaries, or fewer? Do you need more strength? This is an opportunity to invite God to help you fix the limits in your life.

Next, face straight forward, the direction symbolized by tiferet, or beauty. This is the ideal of balance, where the beneficence and the boundaries are in their proper proportions. It is symbolized by Jacob, who fathered the Jewish people. Reflect: What do you need to bring balance in your life?

Then, look up. Can you connect with God? What’s the holiness you need in your life? How high can you rise this year spiritually?

Then, aim down. This is a chance to pray for groundedness, to reflect on your foundations. And it’s about your ability to find the buried treasures, under your feet; the truths buried in the dirt.

Finally, face backwards and wave the lulav in that direction. The essence of repentance, Carlebach taught, is being able to go back and fix your past. This is a prayer that your past be fixed by your coming to terms with it.

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