Season of Rejoicing: Celebrating Sukkot in Crown Heights
In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the holiday Sukkot is a celebration of life, community, and autumn's bounty.
Enlarge Image Credit: Ariana Lindquist
It's a brisk fall evening on Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a thoroughfare lined with kosher bakeries and restaurants. Tough it is almost midnight, many stores are still open and several blocks have been cordoned off by the police. I am in a crowd of hundreds of women angling for a glimpse of the revelers before us: A sea of men in black and white, most wearing wide-brimmed hats, spinning, beads of sweat dripping from their beards as they match the frenetic pace of the music pumping from a stage in the street. I can't help but cheer a little. The joy is infectious.
The cause of the revelry is Sukkot, Judaism's seven-day celebration of thanksgiving. In Crown Heights, the center of the Lubavitch Jewish community, it's referred to by its Hebrew name, z'man simchateinu, the Season of Our Rejoicing. Sukkot commemorates the Jews' 40-year trek through the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. It's also a harvest festival, a weeklong marathon of praying, studying, partying, and perhaps most important, feasting.
The holiday table can be a wonderful pastiche of global Jewish foods.
Growing up in a multifaith family, I didn't celebrate Sukkot. Even as I became more interested in my Jewish heritage after my father's death when I was 16, I still overlooked the holiday. Then a couple of years ago, my husband, Daniel Berson, and I visited his family in Denver for Sukkot, and I fell in love with it. All meals during the holiday are consumed in a sukkah, a temporary hut built to honor those biblical desert meals. The first two nights and final evening of Sukkot are marked with lavish feasts; in the interim days, the huts become rest stops, their tables laid with finger foods and one-pot meals. At my first Sukkot dinner, we sat around a patio table bundled up in jackets, and savored our food beneath the stars. Like picnicking, eating our rice-stuffed acorn squash and warm apple crisp in the sukkah elevated the experience above the daily concerns of our lives.
After that, I wanted to learn more about the holiday: I remembered hearing that in Crown Heights, not far from where my dad was raised, there are massive Sukkot festivities. Thousands of Lubavitchers come to the neighborhood each year from as far away as the Middle East, Europe, and South America. It's considered a mitzvah (good deed) to open your sukkah to guests, so nearly every home in this roughly 100-square-block community has its own, some big enough to host hundreds. Crown Heights is the center of this sect of ultraorthodox Hasidic Jews, home to approximately 15,000 followers, a number that swells to 20,000 during Sukkot. The group is united by a devout observance of Jewish law—all keep kosher, avoid working on Sabbath, and follow dictates of dress and behavior. Yet because of the people's far-flung origins, the holiday table can be a wonderful pastiche of global Jewish foods. I wanted to try them all.
I knew that gaining access to this tight-knit group would be a challenge, so I called the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, in Brooklyn. The director, Jesse Blonder, immediately said, "I've got the lady for you." Elka Pinson, one of the academy's founders and a real macher (big shot) in the Crown Heights community (she's also a psychologist and a part-time matchmaker), would be an ideal guide. After one conversation with Pinson, I knew I was in good hands. "Sukkot is the ultimate time," she told me, but I needed to be ready to celebrate "literally all night."