Sukkot: A Jewish Harvest Festival

The Sukkot holiday celebrates both the home and harvest.
Traditional Fare Clockwise: Cabbage rolls; Lili Khabie’s couscous dish with butternut squash, carrots, zucchini, onions and garbanzo beans; artichokes drizzled with lemon juice and garlic over rice; harvest bread

In Minnesota, fall is a season filled with warm soups and cool, crisp weather. If you’re Jewish, it’s about Sukkot, an eight-day holiday celebrating the harvest.

Sukkot, Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue says, translates in English to “feast of the booths” or “feast of the tabernacles,” among other translations. “The teaching is, generally speaking, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, they dwelled in sukkahs, so we, too, dwell in sukkahs,” says Olitzky.

While driving around St. Louis Park, you might notice what look like tents in your neighbors’ yards. These are sukkahs, “no different than field workers or farmers have a hut to keep them out of the sun,” Olitzky says. Jews stayed in sukkahs after the exodus from Egypt. The holiday itself is both to commemorate the exodus and celebrate the bountiful harvest.

The Sukkah

The walls of a sukkah can be made of anything, Olitzky says. “It’s the roof that matters.” It must be put on the sukkah last, and it has to be made of something that comes from the ground. “So that’s why some people here will use corn stalks or bamboo mats.” And in these huts, you are supposed to live for the eight days—though in the colder months, not everyone does. Most people make a point to have their meals in the hut, setting up a full table and chairs for the week. Anything you do in your home, you do in the sukkah. Which, for Olitzky, means sometimes bringing in the laptop to watch the hockey game.

For Betsy Israelson and her family, it means bringing in her addiction to all things Minnesota Vikings. “I’m a Vikings nut,” she says. Her sukkah, which was made by a friend’s father, is purple, and is decked in Vikings memorabilia.

“After the football season, things get cheaper, so I found a plastic table cloth that looks like a football field, and after Christmas I found some football Christmas ornaments,” she says. “I’m always on the lookout for things.” There are plastic Vikings glasses that they only use for the holiday; purple and yellow pompoms and garlands hang from the roof of the sukkah.

Part of the holiday tradition involves kiddush, a blessing done over wine or grape juice. “Another family tradition we have is when we go out of town, we get shot glasses from where we’ve been. I have two Vikings shot glasses and we use them for kiddush in the sukkah.” Her next step, she says, is to get some yellow and purple lights for the sukkah.

Lulav and Etrog

“You also have ritual accoutrement” for the holiday, Olitzky says; the main ones are the Lulav and Etrog. “The Torah talks about four species. You have three of them bundled together [in the Lulav], and then the fourth is the Etrog [a citrus fruit].” The Lulav consists of a palm frond, myrtle, and a willow branch. Each of the four species is a symbol, and one of the teachings is that each represents a part of the body. “There are hundreds of interpretations for this,” he says. But one is that “the Etrog represents the heart, willow represents the lips, myrtle represents the eyes, and the palm represents the spine.”

The Meals

There are traditions and synagogue attendances with this holiday, but as St. Louis Park resident Lili Khabie says, “It’s about the food.”

It’s a vegetable-heavy holiday, she says, since it’s about the harvest. Khabie came straight to Minneapolis from Beirut after getting married, and didn’t know how to cook a thing. So she called her mom, who didn’t have written recipes, and simply did what her mom told her to do until she got it down. To this day, “I don’t have recipes, I just do everything,” she says.

For a holiday that doesn’t actually have any traditional dishes, there is a theme of stuffed foods. “This is symbolic throughout festivals over the course of the year,” Olitzky says. “Especially festivals that symbolize blessing and bounty, foods within a food are symbolic.”

One of Khabie’s favorites for the holiday is a couscous dish. “I put in butternut squash, carrots, zucchini, and onion,” she says. “Everybody loves it.” Another favorite, specifically of her daughter-in-law Wendy Khabie, is her stuffed artichoke. “I take hamburger or chicken, whatever you like,” stuff the artichoke, “dip it in egg, then matzoh meal, and bake it. My mother used to fry it, [but] I try not to do that.” When it’s done, she drizzles it with a mixture of lemon juice, salt and garlic, and serves it with rice.

The Israelsons’ main food within a food is the cabbage roll, Betsy Israelson says. But even a traditional food needs a change-up occasionally. “They can be kind of a pain [to make] because you have to roll them up. So one time I found a recipe for deconstructed cabbage rolls,” she says, with the same ingredients but not rolled up. The family, she says, was not impressed. So she sticks to tradition—which can change with a holiday that follows the moon.

“Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, [the date] changes,” she says. “We lived in California for a while and when we came back to Minnesota, the first Sukkot here it was snowing because it was late [in the year]. So your menus are going to depend also on the weather.” An early Sukkot might mean hot soups aren’t desired, or certain foods have passed their season.

The dinners and lunches are more elaborate on the first two and last two days, she says. For her family, this involves fall foods such as apple crisp, pumpkin soups and squash dishes.

For Rabbi Olitzky and his family, one of the favorite meals is a cabbage soup enjoyed on Hoshanah Rabbah, the sixth day of Sukkot. “And the reason for it is one of the prayers that we recite on Hoshanah Rabbah,” he says. At the end of the prayer they say, “The voice of the prophet resounds proclaiming good news of peace and deliverance.” Spoken in Hebrew, it’s “ ‘Kol mevaser, mevaser ve’Omer.’ “In Yiddish, kol mit vaser [which sounds nearly identical to kol mevaser], means cabbage with water. So it’s a pun.”

Cabbage soup (or cabbage with water) might not sound like much of a foodie thing, he says, but it is if you consider that you “basically take a rustic old country recipe and make it this kind of hearty, spiritual, fulfilling meal.”

The other main meal is, as in other families, a stuffed cabbage. “In Yiddish we call it holishkes,” he says, and his family does it a bit different because they’re a piscatarian (fish, but no meat) family. “So we make it with a Morningstar ground round. It’s one of my wife’s, and really one of my mother-in-law’s, specialties.”

A pearl onion and raisin dish makes its appearance at this holiday once a year. “It’s bayleaf and pearl onions and raisins in kind of this simmered sauce, and it’s amazing,” he says.

And then there’s the family specialty, Etrog liqueur.

After the festival, families have the Etrog fruit left over. While Olitzky and his wife were living in Jerusalem, they found a box of Etrogs, which look similar to lemons, that a vendor was throwing out after the holiday, and they decided to test some recipes. “An Etrog itself is incredibly sour,” he says. “The rind is very thick; there’s very little fruit.”

The two made a handful of dishes with the normally tossed-out fruit and found a winner in the Etrog liqueur. To make it, they take “a lot of zest, a lot of sugar, and we try to take a pretty good triple distilled vodka.” They bottle it, wax-seal it, and let it sit in the basement after the holiday to enjoy at the next Sukkot, and during holidays throughout the year.

Each year they’ll make a straight Etrog liqueur, and then some fun flavors. “So we’ll do a raspberry Etrog, one year I did vanilla-clove Etrog, I did a mint Etrog, we’ve done habañero Etrog, blueberry Etrog.”

While Sukkot is commemorating the exodus and celebrating the harvest, it’s also a foodie’s dream.