Note – this post is cultural, not religious in nature!
As a little kid in Queens, my world was “Catholic, Protestant, Jew” to use the title of Will Herberg’s 1955 book. I don’t know when I became aware of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other traditions, but certainly later than these three. While I was extremely fuzzy on the theology, some things were clear: Catholics went to CCD, Jews went to Hebrew School, and Protestants did not go to anything. Protestants got the best of that deal, no question. Jews got a huge party in middle school called the bar mitzvah – clearly a win for them. Catholics and Protestants got Christmas, and Jews got a kind of pretend Christmas called Hannukah, which for some reason everyone spelled different ways and said wasn’t as good as Christmas (though some tried to argue you got eight days of presents.)
As I grew up I learned that Hannukah was a minor festival and that the really big ones were Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Passover. My initial impression, however, stuck with me: it seemed liked Judaism had no holiday with a long break, tinsel and the chance to set up big, fun symbols in your house and on your lawn. Turns out I was wrong! Welcome to Sukkot in Jerusalem. The shopping, the decorations, the “what does your set up look like?”, the visiting relatives – it’s all here on Sukkot. Arguably, Sukkot is even cooler for little kids. Christmas trees are pretty sweet, but a tent on steroids in everyone’s backyard – it’s like someone surveyed seven year olds to finish the sentence “it would be so awesome if…” I mean, our neighbor’s sukkah even has blinking lights!
As I discovered today, Sukkot also comes with its place you simultaneously absolutely must and must not go. In New York on Christmas, that place is Rockefeller Center and the window displays on Fifth Avenue – it is iconic. Though locals claim to never go, they end up going far more years than they admit. For Sukkot in Jerusalem, that place is, obviously, the Western Wall. Even public transportation failed us today, as our #1 bus got stuck in such horrendous traffic that almost everyone got off and hiked up the hill to the Dung Gate in the midday heat. When we entered what is usually the run-up to the Kotel, far before one enters the plaza itself, there were already signs and barriers directing men one way and women the other. The whole Jewish Quarter was one big celebration, with a prayer ceremony / rally going on in Hurva Square. Haredi, observant and secular Jews, tourists and locals – all were out in force. A sign in English indicated the way to someone’s bar mitzvah. People on cell phones loudly coordinated with their relatives. A bunch of modern Orthodox guys streamed into a synagogue. As we entered the street dividing the Muslim and Christian Quarters the manic crush of people lightened and the almost entirely Jewish crowd was replaced by the typical Christian tour groups and local Palestinians shopping. I breathed a sigh of relief – one I recognize from getting on the Long Island Rail Road after a busy day in Manhattan during the winter holidays.