Israel: Hot happenings for Succot

By Lydia Weitzman, October 8, 2008

There's plenty to lure you away from the poolside in Israel this month.

It can be tough going to Israel for Succot. Firstly, you have to pull out those summer clothes that you have packed away having hardly worn them this year. It may be mid-October, but in Israel you can be pretty sure of warm days, albeit cooler nights in the succah.

Then, you have to get over any lingering guilt feelings about flying off to the sun while the topics of the day with friends and family are the impending chilly British winter and the credit crunch.

And finally, once you arrive, you'll find so much to do - from international festivals to local happenings, from nature hikes to circus performances - that you will have the problem of carving out some time to simply laze on the beach or by the pool.

The festive spirit in Israel kicks off with the succah fairs held in almost every town square, with (mostly) young yeshivah students touting the Four Species - sold separately and much more cheaply than at home - and booth after booth selling what looks like the remains of last year's Christmas decorations, all glitter and fairy lights for decorating those quintessentially Israeli, build-your-own booths.

Jerusalem is the beating heart of Succot activities - the focus, for millennia, of the three-times-a-year Jewish pilgrimage. The city struts its Yomtov best, with make-yourself-at-home succahs in every café, restaurant and on every street corner. Hotels are at near-full occupancy. Indeed, if you haven't already booked one, you will probably have to stay in one of the five-star kibbutz guest houses on the outskirts, or go to Tel Aviv and commute.

The city also has the largest succah in Israel - this year with an environmentally-friendly green theme - located at Safra Square in the heart of West Jerusalem, and anticipating more than 100,000 visitors over the festival.

Mayor of Jerusalem Uri Lupolianski will host the annual Succot reception for tourists and locals on October 15 at 5.30pm and there will be free Klezmer performances in the square on October 15, 16 and 18 at 8.30pm. The Open House in the President's Succah at Beit Hanasi will take place on October 16 from 9am to 12 noon.

The Western Wall retains its sacred attraction throughout the holiday, with the traditional Priestly Blessing (October 16 at approximately 9 and 10am), and the beating of the willows on Hoshana Rabba (October 20) - both drawing tens of thousands of worshippers and spectators.

On October 15 at 2.30pm, some 8,000 Christians from more than 100 countries are due to join thousands of Israelis and tourists on the colourful, annual Jerusalem March from Sacher Park to Liberty Bell Park.

If you're feeling fit, you can join the five, 10 or 20 km walk which precedes the march. The shortest of the walks leaves the Sherover Promenade in East Talpiot between 7.30 and 8.30am on a route that takes walkers through Rehavia and Talbiye to the Sacher Park, just in time for the extravaganza there from 10am.

The big theme this Succot in the Jerusalem area would appear to be the circus and all things related, with the Virtuoso Festival of street art in Liberty Bell Park close to the Inbal Hotel (October 15 and 16, 4 to 10pm) featuring trapeze artists, jugglers and acrobats; and the Caucasian Circus performing in a 12-metre high big top. The de rigueur arts and crafts stalls, live music and food fair all contribute to the carnival atmosphere.

The old railway station complex is home to another big top, this one belonging to the multi-disciplinary, multi-national, no-performing-animals Dorola Circus, with shows three times a day.

And just 15 minutes outside the capital - at the Ein Hemed National Park with its Crusader fortress remains - you can try your hand at juggling and stilt-walking at the Juggling Festival, which includes performances and workshops (October 17 to 19, from 11am to 3pm).

Other perennial Jerusalem favourites worth a visit this Succot include the Biblical Zoo, where the accent is on wild animals, with workshops, tours and guided feedings; the Tower of David Museum, with its musical exhibition Soundscapes and the stunning new Night Spectacular - a new son et lumiere - and the City of David, with its amazing archeological park, guided tours in English (at 11 am, 1pm and 3pm) and subterranean water walks.

Music lovers will enjoy the series of superb concerts at the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival held in the churches and crypts of this pretty village in the Jerusalem hills (October 18 to 21) on the outskirts of the city.

For something completely different, head for the sessions of more contemporary Israeli music at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea. This festival includes three sunrise concerts on Masada (on October 14, 15 and 16) featuring David Broza, Avitar Banai and Shalom Hanoch respectively.

Other popular Israeli performers including Moshe Ben Ari, Ehud Banai and Yehuda Poliker are playing on the evenings of October 15 to 19 at Nahal Zohar, located just south of Ein Bokek, one of the main Dead Sea resort areas.

The Israeli Music Festival in Rishon le Zion, just south of Tel Aviv, also showcases Israeli stars, including free concerts at 8.30pm with the IDF orchestra and Yehoram Gaon (October 16) and the winners of A Star is Born, Israel's home-grown Pop Idol (October 15 and 16).

At Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve half-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you can hike the Bible-inspired trails where 25 succahs have been built according to examples given in the Mishna and Talmud. There is also the opportunity to take part in basket-weaving workshops, treasure hunts and other child-friendly activities (October 15, 16 and 19, from 9am to 5pm).

Succot coincides with the grape harvest and special activities, workshops and tastings are taking place in the dozens of boutique wineries in the Tuscany-lite Yoav Yehuda region outside Jerusalem as well as in the area around Israel's other wine-producing region of Zichron Ya'acov and Binyamina, just south of Haifa.

If you are heading down south, then you could stop off in Sderot for some home-made, ethnic fare made by local women at the beleaguered town's first "Feel at Home" Culinary Festival (October 15 to 17). It is a laudable attempt to bring visitors - and money - into a town under fire from Hamas rockets until June's ceasefire.

The UNESCO-designated Mamshit National Park, south of Beer Sheva and located on the ancient Spice Route, will once again host the ever-popular Nabatean Market, where stalls offer a colourful ethnic blend of spices, embroidery, jewellery, music CDs and lots more (October 14 to 20 from 10 am, with a special moonlit event until midnight on October 16).

If you plan to be in Eilat for Succot, take time out from the poolside or beach to visit Timna Park, just 30 minutes drive north. The skies above the dramatic Arava desert scenery will be adorned with the bright colours and strange shapes of the Hot Air Balloon Festival (October 16 and 17). Timna Park will also be open in the evenings, with the recently installed illuminations allowing visitors a novel - and much cooler - experience than a day-time visit allows, even in autumn.

Heading north, the weather may be cooler than Eilat, but there are so many special activities, in addition to the normal attractions such as hikes, kayaking in the Jordan and extreme adventures at Manara Cliff, that it is worth a trip.

In Caesarea, on the Med coast between Netanya and Haifa, horses parade in the Roman hippodrome on October 15,16, 18 and 19 at 11.30am and 2pm; while at Bet She'arim, in the southern Galilee, there are night-time tours of the underground caves (October 16 at 8 pm).

A sound and light show (October 14 to 21) at the spectacular Roman remains at Beit She'an, is a good reason to revisit the Jordan Valley.

Court jesters, knights and classical music await visitors at the Renaissance Festival at the Crusader fortress of Yehiam (October 14 to 16, 10am to 6pm), while the Haifa International Film Festival - which will screen 170 films from more than 40 countries, from October 14 to 28 - opens with Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And over at Acre - another UNESCO-designated World Heritage site - the alleyways and citadels of the old city host street theatre par excellence, for the 29th Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre, featuring groups and performers from all over the world (October 15 to 19).

And in addition to all these festivals, there's a host of outdoor activities - hiking, tours and special events - organised by KKL-JNF, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

And, on the evening of October 21, when you think all the Succot celebrations are over, city squares burst into life, as religious and non-religious dance with the Torah scrolls for the second hakafot - an act of solidarity with Jewish communities around the world as they celebrate Simchat Torah.

    Last updated: 1:35pm, October 8 2008