How Americans in the West Bank do Sukkot

Americans put their own twist on the Jewish holiday in an Israeli settlement outside Jerusalem.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk near ritual booths, known as sukkot, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood September 18, 2013. The sukkot are used during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which began at sundown on Wednesday.

As the evening call to prayer reverberated through the hills surrounding Ramallah last night, the kids of Kochav Yaakov were clamoring down the empty streets on plastic trikes, their kippas barely hanging onto their heads.

On any other Thursday afternoon, the hi-tech entrepreneurs, and accountants, and investors who live in this Israeli settlement would be driving the 20-30 minutes home from their jobs in central Jerusalem, or 45 minutes for those who work Tel Aviv. But yesterday was the first day of Sukkot, when Jewish families commemorate the transient dwellings of their ancestors and the fall harvest.

Part of the tradition of this happy holiday is welcoming guests, or ushpizin, into one’s sukka, a temporary structure often consisting of a bamboo roof and white fabric sides. So I tagged along with dozens of American immigrants in Kochav Yaakov on a “sukka hop,” in which members of the community go from one sukka to the next, snacking on light refreshments and sharing thoughts on the Torah.

This year’s hop was the most well attended, said organizer Lisa Bar-Leib, who brought the tradition with her from America a decade ago. The mother of two is part of the American contingent here, which makes up about 10 percent of the diverse community of 550 families, including Jews from France, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spanish-speaking countries, as well as native Israelis. 

Not everyone is interested in hopping. Some are more intent on studying Jewish teachings than sukka-hopping. 

“My husband doesn’t hop, he learns,” says one young mother a bit apologetically, balancing her newborn baby on her hip.

A family event

Kids seem to far outnumber adults, creating a blur of wild hair and smudged cheeks as they scamper everywhere, making off to a corner of the sukka with a plastic bowl of kosher treats.

Subsidized daycare is available for about 1,000 shekels a month ($285) and babies as young as three months are accepted, so many of the mothers work right through their children’s early years. The bus to Jerusalem is also subsidized; it only costs 3.30 shekels – less than $1, and about half of what I pay for a 10-minute bus ride from one Jerusalem neighborhood to another. Housing is also relatively cheap; young families who were living in cramped, decrepit apartments in Jerusalem can afford a big, beautiful home with outstanding views here.

To accommodate burgeoning families with as many as 10 children, as well as new immigrants who have chosen the Kochav Yaakov (Star of Jacob) settlement to be their home for its affordability, wholesome lifestyle, open-minded people, and proximity to Jerusalem, a new bloc of homes was just built near the entrance. The new houses are part of a steady expansion of Israeli settlements across the West Bank, where the number of Israelis has more than doubled since the Oslo peace accords were signed 20 years ago. (Editor's note: The original version mistranslated Kochav Yaakov.)

Arabs and nonArab neighbors

Most families here are religious and at least somewhat ideological: Many see this area as part of greater Israel that God promised to them centuries ago. But they do not appear to be blind to the presence of their Arab neighbors, who shop at the same supermarket, guard the gate to their community, and help build new homes.

One young mother of three said, as I recall (I wasn’t allowed to take notes due to religious restrictions on the holiday), that she doesn’t mind Arabs – the only problem is figuring out which ones might want to kill her or her family, she says. When she was grocery shopping last fall, a distraught woman got off her cellphone and told her that a bus had just been bombed in Tel Aviv; she recalls looking around at the Arabs in the aisles and wondering if any of them had similar intentions.

There have been incidents in the past 20 to 30 years where Arab contractors or employees, even those with close relationships to their Jewish bosses – even those whose families had invited each other over for meals – later murdered them. While that's a tiny number, those stories are seared into memory for Jews.

But now this mother of three has Arabs working on her house, and it’s the first time she’s really gotten to have in-depth conversations with them. One told her in Hebrew, how he and his two wives all live in one house and and "thank God we all get along." Another said that life has been better for Arabs since Israel was established, and he hoped there would never be a Palestinian state – though she wasn’t entirely confident he felt free to say what he really thinks. It's been an eye opening opportunity for her. 

As the stars come out

After three hours of sukka-hopping and meeting so many Sarahs and Chavas that I couldn’t keep everyone straight, I walked out of the final sukka and into the pleasant evening air, with a full moon rising over the mountains of Jordan in the distance.

As I walked out of the gated yard to my car, I heard one of the guards say “assalamu alaykum” – Arabic for “peace be upon you.” Then he asked me, in Hebrew, if I knew when the holiday ended.

Right about now, I told him. Right as the stars come out.

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