Naomi Graetz

Pray, Eat, and Be Happy on Sukkot


On Sukkot, we are commanded to be happy–ve-samachta be-hagecha. It is the only holiday in which this is so. The question is what is there about Sukkot to be happy? In Israel it means sitting outside in weather which in the evening might be very pleasant (except for mosquitos), but at lunch time might be 38 degrees Celsius in the shade (and this time flies replace the mosquitos). At my age, there is no joy in sitting on plastic chairs and having to walk from the kitchen to bring food into the succah. True, I am happy to see my grandchildren decorate the succah with the same collection of beautiful plastic fruit, that I found lying in the street in the East 90’s of NYC when my mother and I were walking to the 92nd Street Y to go swimming in the 1980’s—a story which I told my children and now my grandchildren (who maybe will one day tell their children). It is our custom to pray in our synagogue’s succah and so this means again a battle with flies and no air conditioning—and again those plastic chairs (although, out of respect, people bring out two normal chairs for me and my husband).

But the happiest part of Sukkot for me, besides having our entire family come down to celebrate all the October birthdays (daughter, son-in-law, and grandson) and other events that have been overlooked over the summer (like my birthday), is having friends over for coffee and cake. For the past several years (since the beginning of Corona, which corresponded with a new pergola) the opening of our succah looks out at our storage metal shed. I put up a whole array of pictures with magnet backings, which stay there for the entire seven days.  Sometimes they fall down, but the family loves looking at them. We also put up pictures on the succah walls and in the past, we had traditional pictures of the Ushpizin—the seven guests we invite into our succah.


Ushpizin” is an Aramaic word which means visitors. It’s a tradition that is found in the Kabbalistic book, the Zohar, in which seven (usually) biblical characters visit our homes. It’s like Elijah coming to visit on Passover, for whom we have a special cup on the Seder table. We invite spiritual guests to join us, as an example of our hospitality. Since one of the first people to invite people to his home was Abraham–who greeted the three angels when he was sitting outside his tent in the heat of the day–he usually commands top billing in the traditional pictures.

If you look at traditional commercial ready-made canvases or cotton sides of the succah, you will see them arranged in chronological order and they are usually male: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Under the influence of feminism, ushpizot (feminine of ushpizin) were introduced, often the biblical characters: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther. One could also introduce more controversial biblical women like Eve, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Dinah, Batsheva, and Ruth and then have interesting conversations about them as well. One can have historical women be our guests: Donna Gracias, Emma Lazarus, the poet Rachel, Golda Meir, Shulamit Aloni, Ayelet Shaked and Ruth Ginzburg. When the choices of ushpizot are political one can have amazing discussions (and hopefully not fights) around the table.

One of our closest friends has been putting up pictures of her own maternal family for years, which is an excellent way to include people who are no longer with us. So, adapting her idea, I decided to make my own family be ushpizot—although except for my mother, we are all still alive, hanging in there.  The question is how to do it. The limit of 7 makes it very interesting. I have 4 granddaughters and 2 daughters (that’s already 6) which doesn’t leave me with any room for an ancestress. So, I decided that since two of my granddaughters are in California for the holiday, I would not include them. So this is my list for this year: my mother (1), my sister (2), me (3), my two daughters (4-5) and two of my granddaughters (6-7).

The next thing was to create a picture of us: that was not too difficult, since I have so many pictures on my computer.  The next was to create a blurb, honoring each one for something special concerning them. Also, not too hard! I cheated a bit, because I also found a picture of my maternal grandmother and her mother (my great grandmother). And in the end, I also included my two granddaughters, who are now in L.A., because why not!   And while we are at it, there’s a picture of my mother-in-law as well. There are no rules.


So here are the seven official ushpizot who will visit us for this year, one for each day of the holiday: On the first day my mother, Charlotte Jaray Lebowitz will visit us with all of her common-sense wisdom. On the second day my sister, Menorah Rotenberg will visit us and help me with my memories of past sukkot together. On the third day, it will be me with my presence and hopefully able to skip out to the pool to do some laps. The fourth day will bring my daughter, Rabbi Ariella Graetz Bartuv, the rabbi of Kehillat Ohel Avraham Synagogue in Haifa. You can google her and also hear her speak here.  She has a lot to say. The fifth day will be for my daughter, Avigail Graetz, a mindfulness teacher, novelist, playwright, standup comic (in English, Hebrew and Spanish) and film director, who has just returned from a two month trip, starting in Portugal, then on to Mexico and then to the Burbank International film Festival, where she won the prize for “best director of a foreign film”. The sixth day will be dedicated to Ariella’s daughter, Meirav who is now in a pre-army mechina. She is an accomplished flute player and actress, and until now a volunteer with HaShomer HaChadash which safeguards the land and farms in the Galilee (here). And finally, on the seventh day, Avigail’s daughter, Shira who is ten years old will visit us in spirit. She loves sport, skateboarding, surfing and has a yellow belt in Judo. She has travelled the world with her parents (every year missing the first month of school) and knows some words in Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese.

We will miss my two granddaughters (Ayelet and Talya) who are with their father and brother in Los Angeles for the holiday.

I heartily recommend the custom of ushpizen and/or ushpizot to you. You can also have couples be your guests. Let your imagination take you where you want and it will give you an excuse to google information about people you don’t know, and/or to choose from old family pictures, whether from physical albums or on your computer.

Hag Sameach and G’mar Hatimah Tovah.  BTW: on the holiday itself the standard greeting is Moadim be-simcha and the answer is Hagim U’zmanim le-sasson. Have a happy holiday!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
Related Topics
Related Posts