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Writing Jewish Characters: Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

Updated: Mar 6


And here we are at the last chain of holidays in the fall. This group starts with Sukkot, goes straight into Shemini Atzeret, and ends with Simchat Torah - and while technically they’re sort of separate holidays, they’re also sort of…not? Even if you consider them separate, they run right into each other anyway.

These holidays fall from the 15th through the 22nd (in Israel) or the 23rd (in the rest of the world) of Tishrei, which happen between September 18th and October 26th. In Israel, Sukkot runs from the 15th through the 21st, and then Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah are the 22nd. In the rest of the world, Sukkot runs from the 15th through the 22nd, overlapping with Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah is a separate holiday on the 23rd.

Yeah. I’m sorry it’s confusing. Do a search for dates if you need them!

Sukkot

The name Sukkot is the plural of sukkah, which is a booth/hut you build for Sukkot, commemorating the huts the Jews lived in when they left Egypt and traveled through the desert.

Sukkot is the fall harvest holiday and the first of the Shalosh Regalim, the three major festivals. The other two are Passover and Shavuot. It is one of two holidays (the other being Passover) which is divided into two types of days: Chag and Chol HaMoed. Chag means “holiday” and on those days you follow the no work rules (see this post for more detail). Chol HaMoed means “weekdays of the festival” and on those days you do not follow the no work rules, unless it also happens to be Shabbat. In the case of Sukkot, the first day in Israel or the first two outside of Israel are Chag, while the rest are Chol HaMoed.

While Sukkot is technically a very important holiday, it’s become far less important in modern American Judaism for a number of reasons, including: a) it’s seen as a more child-centric holiday, b) it’s not so fun to celebrate alone, and c) it’s not an easy holiday to celebrate properly.

This last has a lot to do with building a sukkah, which isn’t exactly simple. There are rules about number of walls (at least three), what the roof can be made of (natural materials only), and where it can be located (outside, under an open sky). It must be a temporary dwelling.

In other words, good luck finding space to build one if you live in an apartment building.

And that’s not even getting into the issue of buying a sukkah, storing it from year to year, and taking the time to put it up and take it down every year.

This is sometimes solved by groups building larger shared sukkot - synagogues almost always do, Jewish dayschools generally do, colleges often do, and sometimes even apartment groups. In NYC, some kosher restaurants even build their own sukkot on the sidewalk outside and serve food in them throughout the holiday. Single people are less likely to build a sukkah (space, time, money), and more likely to join groups to celebrate…or skip celebrating at all.

Obviously, families build them too - my retired stepfather loves this holiday - but it’s a lot of work for something you leave up for barely a week.

If you do have a sukkah, you are technically supposed to do everything possible in the sukkah, including sleeping and eating. Around here? Almost no one sleeps in their sukkah, unless the weather is extraordinarily nice. Eating is much more likely, but not necessarily every meal. My mother does host dinner most nights, but not every night, and if the weather gets bad, we don’t eat outside (though we’ll still at least say a couple of blessings out there before moving inside).

This is a time to get together with friends/family (if you’re not already sick of them after Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur). As an example, my mom hosted ten people last Wednesday night, ten people Sunday night, ten people Monday night, and five people Tuesday night. She went to a friend’s house to eat in their sukkah on Thursday night. As far as I know, all of those meals happened in the sukkot this year - but that definitely wasn’t the case last year!

Unfortunately, the weather getting bad is pretty common, because Sukkot takes place in September/October. This means the weather in the NYC area can easily range from 45 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and from pouring rain to boiling sun. I’ve had years where we ate every meal in the sukkah and years where we ate none, because it just wasn’t feasible. And that’s not getting into the issue of building one in, say, Canada - where snow in October isn’t unusual!

Sukkot are often decorated by kids (in my family’s case, my almost-six-year-old niece and nephew). Paper chains are popular, as are drawings and other crafts. Unfortunately, due to rain, these often get ruined by the end of the holiday, but they’re a lot of fun to make when you’re a kid. Less fun, of course, when you’re an adult.

I’ve seen other decorations, including Jewish posters, Rosh Hashanah cards (my mom puts those up in the sukkah every year), and even lighting (Christmas lights aren’t unusual and my stepfather has figured out a way to literally hang a lamp in the sukkah so we can see each other while we eat). Fall decorations (gourds/pumpkins/etc.) are common.

While there aren’t any required foods during Sukkot, it is a harvest festival, so fall foods are appropriate. I personally associate the holiday with soup, as my mother serves it as the first course of pretty much every meal she makes during Sukkot - this week, she’s made white vegetable soup, mushroom barley soup, lentil soup, and split pea soup for the meals she’s hosted.

In addition to building a sukkah, observant Jews will buy a lulav (a plant frond thing made of date palm, willow, and myrtle) and an etrog (a yellow fruit that’s a lot like a lemon but wrinklier). These are brought to synagogue every morning during Sukkot and shaken in a specific way. Which, let’s be honest, I can’t actually remember because it’s been at least ten years since I’ve shaken a lulav.

While Orthodox Jews will absolutely do this, Reform and Conservative Jews will only do it if they’re personally religious and actually attend synagogue during the holiday. For example, I don’t take off work on Sukkot so I don’t bother, but my stepfather does.

Oddly, this is also the time of year I associate with proselytizing. Jews aren’t supposed to try to convert non-Jews to Judaism…but they’re allowed to try to get less observant Jews to become more observant. So some of the religious Jews try to get others by, well, basically talking to people outside of and in subway stations. Welcome to NYC, everyone!

So if you’re writing characters in a fairly Jewish area in NYC, they’ll notice sukkot going up by synagogues/schools, on balconies/fire escapes, and on sidewalks by kosher restaurants even if they aren’t Jewish. If there’s a sukkah by a synagogue (particularly an Orthodox one) or an apartment building with a lot of Jews, there may be Jews singing loudly late into the night after dinner, especially on Shabbat. A few years back, my apartment building had some noise complaints from the nearby synagogue, as the singing kept going until close to midnight.

A Jewish character (or a non-Jewish character with Jewish friends) may find themselves invited to meals in someone else’s sukkah. They’ll have to decide whether they want to or even can build one (which may lean in different directions depending on their observance level/whether they have kids), but they’ll notice the holiday happening.

And really, it’s hard not to notice men wearing long black coats/hats looking to get Jews to become more religious!

Shemini Atzeret

Yeah, I’ve used similar pictures before, but the truth is? Shemini Atzeret isn’t much of a holiday. Its name means the eighth day of assembly. It’s…the eighth day of Sukkot. Sort of. Or the eighth day if there were eight. This is a Chag (the no work rules apply), so you get the Chag service, with the addition of a prayer for rain (winter is the rainy season in Israel, and rain is important for a lot of plants) and Yizkor (prayers of remembrance).

And that’s it. It’s either part of Sukkot (outside of Israel) or combined with Simchat Torah (in Israel), so really it doesn’t much stand on its own.

The main thing is Yizkor - so if you have a Jewish character who’s lost close family members (parent/sibling/spouse/child) they’ll at least notice the day, and may say the prayers. People who have lost other family/friends (grandparents, close aunts/uncles/cousins, close friends) are not required to say the prayers, but many do.

Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah is a much more fun holiday. It literally means happiness or celebration of the Torah, and it’s the day we finish and restart our reading of the Torah (the five books of Moses, the pentateuch) for the year. So the very end of Deuteronomy is read, then the very beginning of Genesis.

There’s a lot of fun, including singing and dancing with the Torahs, kids being silly, and even occasionally adults drinking alcohol. A tradition in the synagogue I grew up in is that during the musaf amidah (an additional version of an important prayer, I’ll discuss details when I get to prayer) on Simchat Torah morning, kids get to basically prank the rabbi and cantor, so the bimah (stage) often ends up looking like a confetti factory exploded.

A lot of synagogues will celebrate their new members or important members - giving various honors to people who have done important work throughout the year.

Singing and dancing around the Torahs is a big deal, and can even expand into the streets (as seen in the picture above). As I said, this is a very fun holiday.

If your character likes dancing (especially horas and other Israeli dancing) or drinking, this is a good holiday to do both those things! It’s fun for kids and adults alike.

In addition, if your characters are in a Jewish area, they may see a large group leave the synagogue and start singing/shouting while carrying the Torahs. Luckily, this mostly happens around 8 or 9 pm on the evening and around 11 am on the morning, so you don’t get a ton of noise complaints. But if it keeps going, it will.

All of these holidays may or may not be attended by individual Jews. Less religious Jews usually won’t do as much as more religious ones. I personally go to synagogue on Shemini Atzeret if I can (for Yizkor primarily) and Simchat Torah if I’m in the mood. I also eat in my mom’s sukkah at least once. But I don’t build my own sukkah and I haven’t shaken a lulav in a very long time.

Ultimately, it depends on the level of observance - Orthodox Jews will of course celebrate all of these, while Reform Jews may do none at all. Families with children who own their own houses will likely participate more than single adults who live in rented apartments. So think about all of those factors when deciding how to write your characters celebrating these holidays!

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#writingjewishcharacters #jewishholidays #jewishcharacters #judaism #sukkot #sheminiatzeret #simchattorah #religion