Every fall, Jews around the world come together to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, also known as the High Holidays. Five days after Yom Kippur is over, another holiday starts again, this time, it is the wonderful holiday of Sukkot.
Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest and the exodus from Egypt. Many families build their own sukkahs or have one at their synagogue. A sukkah is a temporary hut topped with branches and decorated with autumnal, harvest, or Judaic themes. One mitzvah of sukkot is to share a meal in the sukkah. Another is to shake a lulav and etrog and rejoice before God. The lulav is actually made up of branches from palm (lulav), willow (aravot), and myrtle (hadassim) trees and the etrog is a citron fruit. The four items are meant to represent the various personalities that make up the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity is emphasized on Sukkot. More than anything, sukkot is a holiday of coming together.
Since Sukkot is a holiday of community, it is a great time to come together and read a book to understand the many meanings of the holiday.
In her book, The Little Esrog, Rochelle Kochin tells us specifics about the etrog (esrog) while also giving a lesson about modesty and respect for all. The tale is told form the perspective of a little etrog who is laughed at and belittled by the larger etrogim. But when the man who was transporting the etrogim to a small village mistakenly cuts off a piece of the larger etrogs to keep them safe, he inadvertently makes them useless and only the littlest etrog remains kosher. This book is mainly written for an observant Jewish audience, as it takes place in a strictly observant community, but all children can understand the feeling of being too small. Children often look forward to being bigger and “counting” more or being able to do more, but it was the sheer fact that this etrog was smaller than the others that allowed him to save the day.
More classic in its styling, Jane Breskin Zalben’s Leo & Blossom’s Sukkah is a sweet story of a group of young children making their own sukkah next to the one their father is building. When night comes, the family has a large feast in the sukkah and Papa tells the story of the Jews fleeing Egypt and why they celebrate Sukkot. One of the children says how it is similar to Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims and there are many similarities, since we are thanking God for safe haven and for the fall harvest. An endearing story of a family coming together to celebrate a special holiday.
For the youngest listeners, Tracy Newman’s Sukkot Is Coming! is a great way to introduce the holiday. Readers follow along as a family gets their sukkah ready. A special part of the book is that it highlights inviting guests into your sukkah.
No Jewish preschool is every complete without Sammy Spider books, and of course there is one for Sukkot. In Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot, young Sammy learns about the holiday of Sukkot while young readers also learn a little bit about directions. Sammy watches the Shapiro family build and decorate their sukkah. Towards the end of the story, Josh Shapiro shakes the lulav and etrog in all directions to “show that God is everywhere.” Sammy Spider books are always a hit because of their repetitive nature and recognizable cast of characters.
The modern master of the Jewish folktale is Eric A. Kimmel. In his book, The Mysterious Guests, he focuses on the fact that part of Sukkot is to welcome the Ushpizin and the importance of hospitality. This story focuses on how two brothers build separate sukkahs that are different in appearance and demeanor. Each are visited by three unexpected guests. In one location, the host provides a lavishly appointed sukkah with endless food options, yet he shows little kindness to the guests. The second brother had a more modest sukkah, but it was filled with a welcoming spirit and he did his best to share his limited amount of food with all who came. Not surprising, the three biblical patriarchs rewarded the generous person and the other learned a lesson from his misbehavior. This is a challenging lesson to teach to young children and every child I have shared a Kimmel book with, Jew or gentile, has appreciated the stories.
Another beautiful and modern story comes from Rachel Packer in Sky-High Sukkah. This brings Sukkot into a modern, urban setting. Young Leah is sad because Sukkot is coming and she has no where to build a sukkah. She lives in a high-rise building and no one is allowed on the roof. Her friend Ari is allowed on his roof, but his parents think a sukkah costs too much money. Fortunately, there is a poster contest in Hebrew school and Ari manages to win a sukkah building kit. Where this book becomes extra special is it shows how a community, even neighbors who are not Jewish, come together to create a special sukkah and share in the holiday together. The images are beautiful and I especially love when the children are in Hebrew school and there are Hebrew letters abounding.
Because a large part of Sukkot is community, helping others also comes into play when talking to younger children, especially in more reform communities where the families don’t tend to actually live or eat meals in the sukkah for a week. The Best Sukkot Pumpkin Ever, by Laya Steinberg, has a family picking pumpkins for themselves, but also so that the farmer can donate the extras to a local soup kitchen. Young Micah wants the biggest pumpkin for himself, but he realizes that the soup kitchen could use it more. The book also has a section in the back suggesting various activities that young children can do to help heal the world (Tikkun Olam).
Finally, another book that touches on community and the larger world around us is Shanghai Sukkah, by Heidi Smith Hyde. This book takes a look at part of Jewish history when Jews fled Berlin before World War II and fled to Shanghai. Their lives were very different there, but there was still a desire to keep to their traditions. Young Marcus finds friends at the Yeshiva, but he also befriends a young Chinese boy named Liang. As Sukkot is approaching, Marcus explains the holiday to him and Liang says that they also have a harvest festival called the Moon Festival. A riddle from a Chinese lantern helps Marcus see the true meaning of all of these holidays – the people around us. This book also has a remarkable historical note in the back about Jews in Shanghai.
So while the high holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover get a lot of non-Jewish attention, there are other amazing days on the Jewish calendar that can relate to the larger community. For more on Sukkot, here is a fabulous video from bimbam. Shalom y’all!