Hoping the weather cooperates for Sukkot


I should be thinking about the meaning of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that started last night. Instead I’m fretting about the weather.

The Jewish religious calendar is unique in that it is both lunar and seasonal. Months have 28 or 29 days. This means that over the years, the religious dates get out of whack with the secular—and natural—calendar.

Muslims also follow a lunar calendar, but their holidays aren’t connected to the physical seasons–so Ramadan and other holidays can occur at any time of the year.

The Jewish calendar uses a system that adds a “leap month” seven times in 19 years  a second month of Adar, which usually occurs around February — to keep holidays and seasons in their traditional relationship. For example, it wouldn’t make sense for either of the two Jewish harvest festivals—Sukkot in the fall and Shavuot in the spring—to wander through the seasons. It’s hard to celebrate a harvest in January, even in balmy Israel.

Holidays are “late” after a leap year

Last year was a leap year, so everything was pushed back 28 days compared to last year. That means this year, the fall Jewish holidays were “late”–Rosh Hashanah didn’t start until October 3, just a few days earlier than the latest date it can possibly be.

This wouldn’t be a problem except for the festival of Sukkot, which began this year at sundown on October 16.

The holiday doesn’t celebrate only the fall harvest. Mainly, it commemorates the 40 years when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Wherever they camped, they lived in temporary structures, and so on this holiday, we build little huts in our backyards, on our patios or even on our balconies.

These huts are called “sukkot” (singular “sukkah”), often translated as “booths,” which, frankly, I never understood since, while small, they are much larger than phone booths, voting booths or restaurant booths.

We usually interpret the command to “live” in these huts as meaning we take many of our meals in them.

Michigan weather a challenge

In Israel this isn’t much of a problem, but in Michigan, and much of the U.S., it can get pretty darn cold in mid-October, especially after sundown when most of us eat our main meal. And when it rains, eating in the sukkah is just out of the question; the sukkah is supposed to be covered with organic material such as pine boughs, reeds or bamboo, and one is supposed to be able to see the stars through the roof. Unfortunately a roof that lets in a view of the stars also lets in whatever moisture falls from the heavens.

The weatherman is forecasting a high in the low 70s for Sunday in our part of the U.S. Perfect! But they’re also forecasting rain. So while I purchased fancy plastic plates to use in the sukkah, I’ll also be setting my dining room table. In mid-October, you just don’t know!

One thing I will be doing is serving my famous stuffed cabbage, which I make every year at this time. It’s traditional to celebrate the fall harvest by eating stuffed vegetables, a symbol of bounty.

Last year I gave you a recipe for Armenian stuffed grape leaves. Today I offer a nice recipe for apple-stuffed acorn squash. I modified it slightly from a recipe I found on www.food.com, where it was posted by Elana’s Pantry.


Welcoming strangers warmly, kindly and with cookies

This week Jews are in the middle of the eight-day festival of Sukkot. One of the customs of the holidays is to recite a prayer welcoming seven imaginary “ushpizin” (exalted guests, prounounced “oosh PEA zinn”) into the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.  Sukkot, when we eat our meals in little huts in our yards or on our patios – or at least try to, weather permitting – is also a great opportunity to invite real guests for a meal. So it’s a busy week, with much hosting and much visiting.

(For a very funny take on Sukkot customs among the Orthodox in Israel, you’ll enjoy a 2005 award-winning Israeli movie called UshpizinHere is a good review of it. The movie is available currently via Amazon video streaming and through Netflix.)

Thinking about the ushpizin started me thinking about hospitality as a religious value. It’s quite a popular topic right now. In fact, our intrepid publisher, David Crumm, did his Read the Spirit  column on exactly this topic last week, with an interview with the Rev. Nanette Sawyer author of Hospitality—The Sacred Art. I also came across warm words about another book on the topic of religious hospitality, The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality by Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian pastor.

A religious value

I know that welcoming the stranger is intrinsic to Judaism. It starts with Chapter 18 of Genesis, where Abraham, still recovering from circumcising himself (can you imagine?) sees three strangers approaching his tent. He immediately jumps up to prepare food and drink for them.

Throughout the Bible, there are stories of people who were shown favor by God because they were hospitable to strangers. The Israelites are repeatedly told to welcome the stranger, because they were once living in a foreign land.

Welcoming guests—especially strangers—is important in just about all religions.

The Qu’ran tells a similar story about Abraham as a way of showing Muslims that they should make the guest feel comfortable by meeting all of his needs before the guest even mentions them.

The law of karma in at least one Hindu tradition holds that  one who treats others with hospitality will be offered hospitality in turn. We can make the world a better place through our acts. The thinking is, “God himself may come to test my character, therefore let me treat every guest as God”—again echoing Abraham’s experience with the angels.

In the Detroit area, 30 interfaith leaders have joined together in a program called the Hospitality Initiative, looking to find ways that religious groups can be hospitable to one another. It’s coordinated by Charles Mabee, director of Christianity studies at Oakland University. Read more about it here.

Being hospitable means making people comfortable, which often means putting yourself in your guest’s shoes. Here is a delightful story by political consultant Frank Luntz, about the hospitality shown to him by Tricia Lott, wife of former U.S. Senator Trent Lott.

Hospitality is tied to food

Hospitality is also inextricably tied to food. How often do we measure the worth of a host’s welcome by the bounty of the table at which we are fed?

The expression “cold shoulder” comes from the opposite of hospitality. In times of old, a cold roast of mutton would be to served unwelcome guests instead of a nice, hot meal.

Such a custom could come in handy. Even when you are warmly hospitable, sometimes you have to give your guests a little nudge that they are coming perilously close to wearing out their welcome.

“Time to go” without the cold shoulder

My husband’s Aunt Hannah taught us a brilliant way to let guests know it’s time to go. We had been visiting with her for an hour or two, enjoying tea and cakes and wondering how to extricate ourselves gracefully. Finally Aunt Hannah asked, “Would you like another cup of tea before you go?”

“Oh no, no, no,” we said, “we really must be going.” Problem solved without the cold shoulder.

I like to keep cookies on hand to welcome drop-in visitors. This recipe is called Trailside Oatmeal Cookies because they’re good to take along on a picnic or hike. You can convince yourself that they’re good for you because they contain lots of healthy stuff like oats, peanut butter and dried fruit. And they freeze really well, so you might want to stash some away in the freezer so you don’t eat them all up yourself before you get a chance to serve them to guests.

One more thing before I leave you: I recently received this question on my other blog, Bobbie’s Best Recipes. I have no clue about the answer, so I’m asking all of you! If anyone can help this reader, please let me know.

This is not a comment but a question. Years ago at a friend’s house for dinner his mother cooked a meal of Egg Noodles, shredded cabbage, Polish sausage. There was also fennel seeds in it. I am sure there was other things like butter, and spices, but I do not have the recipe and sadly that dear lady is passed away now. Can you possible help me to figure out what might have been in this recipe, it was so good. I know she baked it in the oven before serving it, as she brought it right out of the oven to the table. I hope you have some suggestions as to how I could recreate this recipe.
Thank you
Joan Abbott

Sweet and sour stuffed cabbage to celebrate the harvest

HOW CAN SOMETHING that smells so awful taste so delicious? I’m talking about cooked cabbage, that cliche of novels and movies of immigrants in tenement houses. Specifically stuffed cabbage, this week’s recipe. I will be the first to admit that the scent of cooking cabbage is not up there with fresh bread and popcorn as an enticing aroma. Cooking it as stuffed cabbage tempers the problem a bit, because you also get the bouquet of cooking meat and tomato sauce. But don’t be put off by the fear of cooking cabbage! The end result is well worth it.

Before the recipe, let me tell you why I am coking it this week.

In the Jewish world we are preparing for Sukkot (usually translated as “Tabernacles” or “Booths”), a lovely seven-day festival (eight days outside of Israel) that is known as “Zeman Simchateinu,” the season of our joy. It starts this year at sundown on Wednesday. The festival has a dual purpose. It celebrates the fall harvest, and it also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

Sukkot is a plural word (the singular is “sukkah”) that sounds like “sue COAT.” You might also hear it pronounced in Yiddish as “SOOK iss.” A sukkah can be built of anything—wood, plastic, canvas—but the roof has to be made from plant material without any nails or other metal fasteners—for example wood slats covered with pine branches, corn stalks or reed mats. You should be able to see the sky through it. In Israel, where the rainy season hasn’t yet started and it’s still warm, it’s not hard to eat and sleep in a flimsy hut with a partly-open roof. In Michigan, and anywhere else in the northern part of the United States, it can be difficult, especially when the holiday falls in October as it usually does.

When our kids were younger, they’d often declare their intention to sleep in the sukkah. Fine, we’d say, getting out the sleeping bags, foam pads and flashlights. There may have been a year—maybe two—when a child actually made it through the night. Usually the good intentions lasted until the wee hours of the morning, when they’d slink back into the warm house.

(Care to read more? This week, Debra Darvick is sharing a chapter on Sukkot from her book, This Jewish Life.)

Kid-centered decorations

The kids always enjoyed decorating the sukkah. We’d hang up their artwork and the paper chains, along with plastic fruit (real fruit rots too fast and attracts bees). We were delighted last year when our granddaughter visited from New Jersey and helped her Zayda decorate the sukkah! We add twinkly Christmas lights—bought at deep discount one year in January. We even have some lights shaped like chili peppers that I bought from the Lillian Vernon cataglog. I covet my friends’ lights that are shaped like bunches of grapes.

My friends Mandy Garver and Allen Wolf have a unique collection of plastic fruit in their sukkah. They spent two and a half years in Thailand, as employees for Ford Motor Company, and brought back a nice collection of plastic dragonfruit, jackfruit, durian and other weird-to-us southeast Asian edibles.

Fall harvest foods are popular at Sukkot. These include sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage, a recipe developed by Jews in Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Some call the meat-stuffed cabbage rolls holishkas. My Grandmom Anna, who was born in Russia, called them prockas. This is the way she used to make them.

Tips for making stuffed cabbage

Lots of recipes tell you to boil the head of cabbage and then separate the leaves. This is a mess, because you need a huge pot, and then you have to handle a hot head of cabbage. Others say to cut the leaves off the head of cabbage and parboil them. This is also unsatisfactory, because it’s very hard to get intact leaves off a raw head of cabbage—and then you still have to deal with hot cabbage leaves dripping hot water all over your kitchen.

I have a better way, which I learned from my Aunt Lili. The only drawback is it takes some planning. At least a week before the holiday, buy your cabbage, wrap it well in foil, and stick it in the freezer. After a few days  take it from the freezer and put it in your fridge. A block of frozen cabbage takes a long time to defrost, so allow at least five days! You can speed up the process by defrosting it on your counter, but you’ll still need a day or two. Put the frozen cabbage into a large bowl or deep platter, because a lot of water will seep out as it defrosts.

When the cabbage is completely defrosted, cut out the core and the leaves will just fall away, nice and soft and ready for rolling.


You can see what I mean in this little video. Try to ignore the videographer (my husband) telling me to look at the camera and smile.