Food was served, stories were told and wine flowed as roughly 100 people gathered in the sukkah at the Chabad of Hewlett on Oct. 4 to usher in the beginning of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of the Tabernacles — an eight-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the 40 years during which the ancient Hebrews wandered the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.
The celebration began with a prayer led by Rabbi Nochem Tenenboim, the spiritual leader of the Hewlett Chabad, in the main house, and the women lit candles in a separate ceremony. Guests filed in slowly, as the children first gravitated to the swing set in the backyard, and were then gently guided by their parents and grandparents to the sukkah.
Tenenboim asked the guests to look at the hut’s walls, and pointed out that they were not decorated. “This is to remind us that the sukkah is decorated with guests and the people make it beautiful,” he said. In Hebrew, sukkah means booth. It symbolizes the temporary shelters the ancient Jews lived in as they crossed the Sinai Desert after leaving Egypt.
After the somberness of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a happier holiday, when Jews are expected to extend hospitality to those in need, read the Torah throughout the eight days and rejoice.
The holiday is symbolized by what Jewish custom calls the four species: the etrog, the aravot, the lulav and the hasidim. The etrog, a citrus fruit, tasty and with an enticing aroma, symbolizes a person who is an achiever. It is paired with the lulav, a palm branch, which symbolizes a committed scholar. Together they are shaken three times in each direction — right-south, left-north, forward-east, and upward, downward and back-west, while a blessing is recited.
The aravot symbolizes the ordinary in life, while the hasidim symbolizes a person who does much good to help other people.
After Sukkot, there are two separate holidays: Shemini Atzeret (Oct. 12 this year), a day on which to savor the sukkah’s spirituality, and Simchat Torah (Oct. 13), a day to celebrate the Torah with dancing and, at times, drinking.
East Rockaway resident Bernie Lewin, a native of Israel who has lived in the U.S. for 60 years, attended the dinner with his wife, Sherry. “It means to remember what … all the Jews went through,” Lewin said, explaining why he celebrates Sukkot.
As the challah, salad, gefilte fish and pasta were served, Tenenboim recounted an ancient story about a man who wanted to find the holiest sukkah in the world. He was told to go to another part of town, but there was no sukkah, but in variations of the tale through the years, he finds a person willing to help another who is in trouble.
In Tenenboim’s version, a man drinks 10 cups of vodka to help pay the rent for another man and obtain his release from jail so he can celebrate the holiday with his family. The holiest sukkah symbolizes a place where people can find aid and comfort.
“The message of the story is that the sukkah, more then anything else, represents Jewish unity and caring for each other,” Tenenboim said.
As more food was served — matzo ball soup, rice and brisket — there was more discussion about what these holidays mean to the Jewish people. “It is the harvest holiday, and we sit outside [the home] and celebrate the end of the harvest season,” North Woodmere resident Victor Molinsky said. “We thank God for all that he has given us, and for receiving the Torah.”
After dessert — chocolate cake — celebrants wished one another “Chag Sameach,” which means joyous festival. “We are all here, so it’s got to be good,” Valley Stream resident Irving Kaminetsky said, referring to both the dinner and the Jewish people’s continuing existence.