"On Rosh Hashanah it shall be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it shall be sealed" (from the High Holiday prayer) as well as the Sukkot festival "the time of our joy" (from the festival prayer) - these words have been embedded in our hearts and consciousness.
'Then Elul is the last on the steep slope... we begin anew' (Shuv Natchil Mehadash, - Let Us Begin Anew, Natan Yonatan). The summer heat was over and the upcoming year held promise for all. The entire family gathered on the eve of Rosh Hashanah to bid farewell to the previous year and 'our heart responded in an ancient prayer: May the year beginning anew today be wonderful and special in every way' (Be'Rosh Hashanah, On the New Year, Naomi Shemer). We wrote personal wishes to each other on New Year cards. We each recited the blessing over a ripe pomegranate, being very careful not to stain our clothes. We were told that the pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same as the number of mitzvoth (good deeds). Then came the apple and honey, accompanied by a prayer for a sweet new year. Later, when I researched the origins of this custom, I discovered that this was a combination of Jewish traditions from East and West.
On Yom Kippur we would ask a friend for forgiveness. We interlocked 'pinky finger, pinky finger for peace' (as per the song Zeret Zeret Leshalom, Rafael Saporta) because "we are good friends, we've made peace and we have forgiven' (!bid). We all wore white to synagogue and stayed wrapped in our tallit (prayer shawl) during the entire service. Small children hid under their fathers' tallit as they secretly ate their snacks and also when the shofar (ram's horn) was blown at the end of the Ne'ilah (closing) prayer. As an adult, I heard from my comrades during the Yom Kippur war that thanks to a tallit they had spread out, they were identified by IDF forces and spared from being bombarded.
As soon as Yom Kippur was over, that evening we began building the sukkah in the courtyard or on the balcony, singing while we worked: 'A hammer, a nail, let's put to our avail, a sukkah to build, boys and girls all.' (Patish Masmer, Hammer and Nail, Emanuel Harusi). All the children took part in decorating the sukkah, carrying out the mitzvah in its full glory. An old record player played music in the center of the sukkah as it took shape. The song about Shlomit building a sukkah (Shlomit Bonah Sukkah, Shlomit Builds a Sukkah, Naomi Shemer) was our favorite. We yearned for a sukkah like Shlomit's: 'full of light and greenery' (ibid), decorated with 'the lulav' [palm branch] and the hadasim [myrtle leaves], a branch of green willow; a pomegranate within its green leaves and all the fruits of autumn with their fragrance of orange groves.' Ushpizin [special guests] were invited to our beautiful sukkah, and with family and friends we burst into song: 'In our Sukkah there is joy and light, visitors come and there is much rejoicing' (Basukkah Shelanu, In Our Sukkah, Leah Naor). 'Then, through the roof of branches, with a glow as bright as a diamond, she will spot a star, saying: Shalom wondrous sukkah, how fine and pleasing it is that Shlomit built a sukkah of peace.' (Shlomit Bonah Sukka). On more than one occasion the sukkah was blown down by the wind, but it was always rebuilt and redecorated. In the course of my research as an adult, I discovered that the sukkah is a symbol of the fortitude of the Jewish people, who heroically stand up and brush themselves off after a fall.
Childhood memories of the annual festivals return each year like the prayer we repeat again and again, 'Like waves that break unceasingly, into the vast sea...' (Shuv Natchil Mehadash).
Dr. Dov Herman
Bar Ilan University