Succot (or Succos/Tabernacles) is a very special holiday in Israel. First, it’s a seven day “relocation” from one’s permanent residence to the temporary, humble, wooden Succah (booth). The term “succah” suggests wholeness, totality, and shelter, albeit in a structure that, by definition, is subject to the vicissitudes of weather. This year, a rainstorm (good- the first rain since May) occurred in the intermediate days of Succot, nearly blowing the succah away.
Succot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays of Judaism (Succot, Passover, Shavuot). In ancient times the Jews were instructed to go up to Jerusalem to make an offering at the Holy Temple. “You should have seen Jerusalem in those days…” Thousands of pilgrims mobbed the area of the Temple Mount, bringing goats or sheep to be sacrificed by the priests, or buying pigeons from local venders for the same purpose. Today, scores of thousands come to celebrate in a less bloody way, including tens of thousands of Christians celebrating the “Feast of Tabernacles.”
We celebrate Succot at home by building our succah, the same one we purchased as a kit 27 years ago. We always have a big party on the first night of the holiday; this year was no exception. It was even more poignant than usual, because we have sold our home and will move to an apartment in a nearby town in several months. Our usual crowd of about a dozen and a half (some of whom helped to decorate the succah) enjoyed a delicious meal and much Israeli wine.
A few days later, we went up (literally, 3,000 feet) to Jerusalem ourselves. We didn’t get to the Temple Mount, the site where the Temple stood, but we did spend some time at the First Station, a relatively new entertainment venue on the site of the Ottoman-British railway which once linked Jerusalem to the port city of Jaffa. Though the train station hasn’t operated for many years, a new high-speed line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (stopping en route only at Ben Gurion Airport) will open by 2019, cutting the travel time between Israel’s two main cities to less than a half hour!
The First Station was mobbed with people of all types, Israeli Arabs, observant and not so observant Jews, and many Christians from dozens of countries. It was so crowded that I stood in line for 20 minutes just to order lunch.
That evening we stayed over at our friends’ apartment in the Mekor Chayim neighborhood, near Baka’a. The next morning, our friend Ami led us and more than a dozen others around the neighborhood overlooking the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), which is opposite Mt. Zion. We started out at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, located near the Cinemateque and the Mt. Zion Hotel. The hotel is an excellent example of Arab architecture, with atmosphere to match. But we didn’t enter the hotel; instead, we were admitted into the Cable Car Monument on the hotel grounds.
This was the first time that we had visited this unique museum, although we had seen the famous cable before. In 1948, the Old City was a polyglot community of Muslim and Christian Arabs, (Christian) Armenians, Jews, and others. Adjacent to the Jewish Quarter, but just outside the Old City walls was Mt. Zion, where several notable Christian sites are located. Jewish soldiers controlled that area but were tied down by Jordanian soldiers shooting at them from the Old City walls adjacent to Mt. Zion.
“The War of Independence in 1948 meant that contact with Israelis blockaded in the Jewish Quarter was possible only by means of a cable car, running from a point on Mount Zion to a room in the old hospital building. It was used during the night to transfer medicine and arms to Mount Zion, and the wounded to the hospital [and to shuttle soldiers back and forth]. During the day the cable was lowered to the ground so as not to be seen by the enemy.” (mountzion.co.il/)
Inside the monument is a small museum where visitors can see the cable car and its mechanism, together with photographs and souvenirs from the period. We had a personal interest in the photos, because we had an older friend, now deceased, who was stationed right there. Sure enough, we found a picture where we identified Yossi M., who had made aliyah from NJ shortly before the war began.
After leaving the monument, we walked briefly through Liberty Bell Park to the Montefiore Windmill, which was built in 1857 to be a symbol of progress and industry, but almost immediately stopped working due to lack of wind and poor design.
Born in Leghorn, Italy in 1784, Moses Montefiore was brought up in London. As a young man, Montefiore become one of the 12 “Jew brokers” in the City of London. After initial setbacks, he prospered and then married Judith Cohen, Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s sister-in-law. Montefiore, who during his career acquired a large fortune and much influence, retired from business in 1824 and devoted his time and resources to community and civic affairs.
After his first visit to Palestine, Montefiore had became strictly observant, visiting Israel seven times in total, which was a monumental achievement in those days. He bought land in Palestine to help Jews become self-sufficient, and attempted to bring industry to the country by introducing a printing press and a textile factory. He inspired the founding of several agricultural settlements and built the aforementioned Windmill in Jerusalem, which is adjacent to the eponymous community of Yemin Moshe, just outside of the Old City.
Knighted by Queen Victoria and later made a Baron, Montefiore held many prominent positions in London. He traveled to Russian, Morocco and Romania to ask the authorities to stop persecution of the Jews. Not a Zionist per se, Montefiore deeply loved Eretz Yisrael and believed in its messianic restoration.
Montefiore stood 6 ft. 3 in. tall, which together with his background and his philanthropy, made him highly respected and admired in England and abroad. His 100th birthday was a public holiday in Jewish communities around the world. He died a year later. (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
We left the Windmill, which features a replica of Montefiore’s opulent carriage, and walked through the beautiful neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, now a very expensive location. It was one of the first neighborhoods outside of the city, but not quite as old as the nearby Mishkenot Sha’ananim, built in part with funds from Montefiore. Today a vibrant international cultural and conference center established by the Jerusalem Foundation, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, built in 1860, is the first residential building built for Jews outside the Old City walls. An inspiring and charming building, it has a spectacular view of the Tower of David, the Old City walls and the Judean Desert.
That evening, we and our friends attended a benefit showing of “Hummus! The Movie,” written and produced by Jerusalem U, which is an excellent organization committed to strengthening the emotional and intellectual connection of young Jews to Judaism and Israel. The film features secret recipes, more than one Guinness World Record, and the “power of hummus” to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews together in the Middle East and around the world. The film showcases the personal stories of the colorful men and women who just live their lives and love their hummus.
After the film, famous chef, best-selling author, and (relatively new) Israeli Jamie Geller, known as the “Jewish Rachael Ray” (The New York Times), and the “Queen of Kosher” (CBS), gave a short talk about her love for Israel and the important work of Jerusalem U. (jerusalemu.org)
Tired but happy, we returned home for the rest of the holiday. We especially enjoyed the Simhat Torah services at our new synagogue in Kfar Sava, Hod ve Hadar, associated with the Masorti (Conservative) movement.
I highly recommend visiting Israel during Succot, which is – along with Passover – my favorite time of year in Israel.