Share a high-spirited Succot

Akko's lovely fringe festival draws the crowd


In Temple times, Jewish people from all over the Land of Israel came to Jerusalem each year at Succot to offer sacrifices. Today, the festival remains a popular period to visit Israel, with activities for the entire family to enjoy — some directly related to the holiday and others that are just good fun. And the weather is simply perfect.

The whole country seems to become caught up in the happy mood of this chag. But places do get busy, with so many overseas tourists deciding to take a break, before winter sets in back home.

Succot falls a week after the spiritual and physical exhaustion of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One of the other names for Succot is “time of our joy” and, after a period of praying, repenting and fasting, a holiday could be just what the doctor ordered.

It’s a special experience to see how Israelis build succot all over the place — in parks, on balconies, outside restaurants, in army bases — and to watch the celebrations unfold, especially in Jerusalem.

But that said, beware, as the country comes to a virtual standstill on the first days of the holiday. Public transport, restaurants, car hire — virtually all services are unavailable, so arrive at least a day in advance, to ensure you are ready to enjoy the atrractions Israel offers over Succot.

Attractions such as the annual Akko Festival, which has slowly but surely evolved over 30-plus years into one of Israel’s premier cultural events. Israeli fringe theatre at its best, the Akko Festival takes place over four days during Succot. Launched in 1980, it attracts huge numbers of alternative-entertainment fans to the historic city.

As well as local theatre, there are international, street and outdoor theatre groups of every description. The festival is a beacon of coexistence between the Jewish and Arab residents of this “City of Mediterranean Cultures”, with many Arab acts and music troupes taking on local Arab and Jewish young people as trainees.

There is also the buzz and creativity of Haifa’s 34th Film Festival, established in 1983 and possibly the first of its kind in the country. This is a major international event in the cinematic world and draws in some 300,000 visitors, who attend more than 280 screenings of new films from all over the world, around 70 of which are Israeli. It covers all genres and many films are presented by their creators.

Big-name guests from the national and international film arena are hosted by the festival and they mingle with the audience and colleagues at talks between screenings, receptions in the festival garden, masterclasses and conventions. The festival promotes pluralism, co-existence and peace.

Even if you are not religious, the Birkat Cohanim (priestly blessing) at the Kotel will leave a lasting emotional impression. Twice a year, during the intermediate days (chol hamoed) of Succot, thousands of Cohanim, male descendants of the priests who officiated in the days of the Holy Temple, gather at the Western Wall to bestow blessings upon the Jewish people as a whole.

The blessing occurs twice during the morning service. The Kotel plaza is bursting with people hoping to participate, as issuers or recipients of the auspicious blessings. Something everyone should experience at least once.

Another ritual of Succot is gathering and shaking the arba minim — the four species (date palm, willow, myrtle and etrog). In Jerusalem, adjacent to the Shuk, is the world’s largest arba minim shopping opportunity. In the days and nights leading up to Succot, you will see experts painstakingly examining and selecting each of the four species according to their individual criteria.

Succah decorations are also on sale here, as well as an abundance of other wonderful products rarely seen elsewhere — such as giant carved oranges. Spiritual tradition and contemporary urban commerce have never melded so perfectly.

And no account would be complete without the mention of food. While there are no specific foods to be eaten over Succot, nearly every Israeli kosher restaurant (and some non-kosher ones too) constructs a succah on its premises, where patrons can eat during the holiday, thus fulfilling a biblical commandment of dwelling in a succah for seven days to remember the temporary homes of the Children of Israel when they left Egypt.

These restaurant succot, often cleverly decorated and sometimes open to the street on one side, offer an unconventional way to enjoy your falafel, pizza, foie gras or whatever culinary morsel you desire.

So whatever you like to do at Succot, a trip to Israel will be a cultural, uplifting, joyous and spiritual experience — and if all that is not enough, the beaches are great this time of year too. Chag sameach.

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