Move Over, Halloween: In Israel, Kids Go Sukkah-hopping

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between Sukkahs built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between Sukkahs built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It may not be as spiritually meaningful as shofar blowing, lulav shaking and apple-in-honey dipping, but for Jewish children in the Diaspora, sukkah-hopping is one of the most widely anticipated activities of this time of year.

As the name suggests, it's an activity that involves touring designated sukkahs - temporary dwellings in which Jews are commanded to live during the holiday of Sukkot - in which cookies, cakes, sweets and other delicacies are set out for the benefit of the hoppers. Of course, you're supposed to marvel at the decorations in each sukkah and use the opportunity to make the appropriate blessings on the food - and the traditional lulav branches associated with the holiday - but for many, stuffing your face is really what it's all about.

Mordechai Silverstein examining an etrog (citron), one of the "four species" associated with Sukkot, in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

In the United States, where Sukkot tends to fall a few weeks before Halloween, sukkah-hopping has also come to serve as a sort of consolation prize for Jewish children prohibited by their parents or who refrain on their own from participating in the annual trick-or-treat events associated with this not-quite-Christian, not-quite-pagan holiday.

Wherever you may be in the world, Sukkot is usually a great time of year to stroll around outside, the weather by now not too hot and still not too cold. But no matter how much walking you do on your hop, one thing is certain: You're never going to burn up even a fraction of the calories you take in.

Typically, sukkah-hopping is done after synagogue services and lunch on the first or second day of the seven-day holiday. In some communities, though, the activity has been known to start immediately after services, with hoppers taking in different courses of the holiday meal with their hosts at each sukkah they hit. Sometimes, the hosts are there to greet and entertain the hoppers, but often they just leave platters on the sukkah table for their visitors while they rest inside. Younger children are often accompanied by adults, while teens tend to make the rounds on their own.

In more Orthodox communities, where most families set up their own sukkahs, it's an opportunity to see how yours stands up against the others. In less religious communities, where the number of sukkahs is fewer and far between, it's an opportunity to experience sitting in one of these little shacks (and some aren't that little at all ).

Although it's not clear where the tradition of sukkah-hopping originated and when, it seems to have gained a particularly strong foothold in the Jewish communities of the United States, England and South Africa. And in recent years, many transplants from these countries have brought the tradition with them to Israel.

While sukkah-hopping in Israel is far from widespread - in fact, most Israelis have never heard of the concept - it is safe to say that it's beginning to take root here, particularly in towns known for their large Anglo-Saxon enclaves.

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A sukkah on a Tel Aviv sidewalk.Credit: Nir Kedar
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A sukkah on a porch.Credit: Emil Salman
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A sukkah in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Kedar

South-African-born Anthony Reich, who lived for many years in London, has been involved for the past few years in organizing sukkah-hopping activities at Congregation Shivtei Yisrael in Ra'anana. "It really comes from the concept that when you build a sukkah, you're supposed to invite guests," says the hedge-fund specialist, "and this is a great way of getting guests into your sukkah."

At Reich's Orthodox congregation, usually five or six families volunteer their sukkahs for the event, and about 20 children participate, generally aged 5 to bar or bat mitzvah age.

Jeff Mor, who grew up in Long Island, began organizing sukkah-hopping activities in Beit Shemesh when he moved there 15 years ago. "The first year, we had 30-40 kids," says the father of five, who works in the diamond business. "Today we have close to 200."

Breaking somewhat with tradition, the sukkah-hopping groups Mor organizes make their rounds on the first night of Sukkot, rather than during the day. The group meets outside the synagogue, he says, and then sings and dances its way through sukkahs in the largely Anglo-Saxon neighborhood of Nofei Aviv in Beit Shemesh.

"I'm kind of part Chabadnik, so it was the Chabadnik me that got me to do this," he says. "It's all about bring joy to others." The group typically visits 40-50 sukkahs in a given night, he says, before ending its tour at the community rabbi's sukkah, where the children receive a blessing.

Despite its large Anglo-Saxon population, Jerusalem has virtually no organized sukkah-hopping activities to speak of. Esher Shapiro, president of the Great Synagogue, says there's simply no need.

"In the United States, many people don't have sukkahs, so this tradition developed out of a need to let those who don't have a sukkah experience being inside one," he explains. "Here, in Jerusalem, almost everyone has a sukkah. Also, because many are set up on balconies of apartment buildings, they're more difficult to access. It's not like a sukkah in the backyard."

Reich says cultural differences may explain why sukkah-hopping never took off in Israel. "In Israel, we live much closer together than people do abroad, and the whole concept of visiting is so much less formal here, so there's really not as much [of] a need for it here."

If efforts are to be invested in upholding this tradition in Israel, some believe, it's got to be about more than just the candy. At Congregation Ohel Ari in Ra'anana, for example, all hosting families also organize an activity for the visiting hoppers. "It can be a quiz, a sing-along or even a dvar Torah," says Hadassah Fortinky, one of the organizers. "But yes, there's definitely lots of candy, gummy bears and cakes for the kids. Some kids even come with bags to fill them up."