A. An 8-Day Holiday: Aside from Shavout, there are two major festivals on the Jewish calendar: Sukkot in the fall and Passover in the spring. Whereas some Jews in the diaspora take off for the full week of Passover, almost none do so for the full week of Sukkot. In Israel, the first day of Sukkot and the eighth day of Simchat Torah are national holidays, and many people (whether religious or not) do not work for the entire week of Sukkot; those who do work typically have shortened schedules. The first thing to note about Sukkot in Israel, therefore, is that it is celebrated in its entirety.
B. The Weather Makes Celebrating Easy: The weather in Israel during Sukkot is rain-free, nights are mild and pleasant, and while during the day it gets hot, the situation does not reach Miami-like proportions (the city from which we made aliyah, where heat-stress levels are always high through October). Israel deprives one of the “it’s hard to be a Jew” feeling that one gets when eating in a sukkah during inclement weather (depending on where one lives in the U.S. and when the holiday falls, this can range from freezing cold, to rain, to extremely hot and humid weather). In Israel, weather-wise it is easy to eat in a sukkah; in fact, it is almost always pleasurable.
C. Sleeping in the Sukkah: This aspect of the holiday, although not as mainstream in the United States, follows directly upon the previous one. Because the weather at night is so mild and also rain-free during the holiday, it is harder to ignore the Jewish law that ordains sleeping in the sukkah as an integral part of the mitzvah.
D. The Sukkah and the Four Species are Native Phenomena: In Israel during the hot months—and Sukkot always falls out during these months—there is often a huge difference between direct sun and shade. This is why if you look around you at this time of year, you can see sukkah-like structures both in fields and at construction sites. In the latter, make-shift lean-to’s provide shade over work-tables and benches; in the former, farmers assemble little huts in whose shade they can rest. The sukkah, which according to Jewish law must contain more shade than sun, may thus be thought of as a natural outgrowth of life in the Middle East. The four species are also—and more literally—home grown. The palm frond, the myrtle, the willow, and the citron (etrog) are all found growing in Israel. Aside from the etrog, if you go on a hike in Israel, you will often come across one or more of the species. Outside of Israel, the holiday is a foreign implant. In Israel, you can see how a people used what it had at hand to celebrate its Fall Harvest.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.