A 1933 photograph of the interior of Temple Emanu-El decorated for Sukkot. (Photo/J. Archives)
A 1933 photograph of the interior of Temple Emanu-El decorated for Sukkot. (Photo/J. Archives)

The ancient festival of Sukkot needed a Golden State touch

Sukkot, with its annual appearance of palm fronds, willow, myrtle and the bumpy, fragrant, lemon-like etrog, is underway.

Sometimes called the festival of huts (or temporary dwellings), the weeklong holiday is tied to the fall harvest cycle of ancient Israel. But for city dwellers, what does it mean? Well, in the urbanized Bay Area of the early 20th century, it mostly meant parties.

But not exactly ragers. From 1932: “Excitement was rife this week at Sisterhood House in preparation for tonight’s annual Sukkoth program this year in the form of a ‘Pot Pouri,’ states Ethel R. Feineman, resident director. Decorative fruits and vegetables were sent from directors and friends down the peninsula; willing hands of resident girls and neighbors helped to build up the Sukkah in traditional manner … Throughout the week tea will be served under the Sukkah.”

Also in 1932: “Miss Gertrude Key, representing the Council of Jewish Juniors, will sing a group of Jewish folk songs, accompanied on the piano by a sister member, Miss Mildred Berg. The Pro-Palestinian Club of Berkeley, students of the University of California, will contribute songs of Palestine, led by Z. Samisch. Miss Frances Grayman, danseuse of the East Bay, will appear in three dances.” (The Pro-Palestinian Club was a Zionist one in the days before the State of Israel was founded, unlike the current state of debate on campus about Israel today.)

But what do dances and even card parties have to say about Sukkot? Throughout the decades, the rabbis and learned authors who wrote in this publication tried to find a way to connect the ancient harvest festival to the life of the San Francisco urbanite in a way that kept alive the old agrarian spirit of Judaism. So fewer card parties, more sheaves of grain.

“The three stated Feasts of Israel have lost much of their original character, but we in California can understand the happiness of the old harvest-tide,” we wrote in 1896 in an unbylined column called “Random Thoughts.

“Something may be said in criticism of Reform Judaism, in respect to this day. It has, perhaps, neglected to emphasize the importance of celebrating Sukkoth with the same circumstance as all other holidays,” the column continued.

“Coming so soon after Kippur, some indulgence is perhaps shown to the relaxation of the annual worshippers; if this be so, it is high time to remedy the defect.”

Indeed, California is an agrarian state, even if the harvests here don’t exactly line up with the crops of the ancient Israelites.

In what country have we greater reason for celebration than in this land overflowing with the blessings that gladden the heart of man?

“In what country have we greater reason for celebration than in this land overflowing with the blessings that gladden the heart of man? Perhaps we have done wrong in denuding the feast of its symbolism,” the “Random Thoughts” column continued.

Maybe Sukkot could be an eco holiday, a sort of prototype for a green celebration. After all, Sukkot was not only a harvest festival but a rain festival, welcoming — or maybe actually bringing — the onset of autumn showers in Palestine.

In 1897 founding editor Jacob Voorsanger wrote this on the occasion of Sukkot, something that feels all the more impactful in our drought-filled 21st century.

“The lack of water, which is sometimes felt, produces many calamities; and hunger is one of them. We can therefore understand why ancient Palestine had a feast of libation, an autumn feast which symbolized human dependency on the Creator.”

He continued: “We in California, who know something of the benefits of irrigation, are not prepared to say that irrigation is a substitute for rain. Southern California has no rainfall, but its substitute is the vast snowsheds of its mountains, which melt beneath the touch of the vernal sun and come down in torrents into the artificial lakes or reservoirs, which store the water for future use.”

Like Israel, California is a dry — and ever drier — land. Drought “produces famine and famine is death,” Voorsanger wrote.

Voorsanger may not have known anything about climate change, but even he could draw the conclusion that people depend on the land, and so celebrating its abundance was something that could connect Bay Area urban Jews with their farming ancestors.

Simply by looking around one could, in effect, celebrate the end of the harvest and the relief it brought to the ancient Israelites.

“To decorate the altar of God with all the marvelous produce of the land — with golden orange and the rich fruit of the vine, with olive branches and the fruit of the lemon groves, with pears and apples and pomegranates, with sheaves of wheat and the treasures of our fields, all framed in the loveliest flowers one can only see in Palestine and California — what a noble Sukkoth decoration this would be,” he wrote in an editorial in 1907.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.