VALLEY VILLAGE — And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
Autumn blew into town this week and landed at Adat Ari El Temple and Day School, where a dozen or so eager children ushered in the season by decorating a large, three-sided structure of wooden trellises in preparation for the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.
On Tuesday, several of the children formed a human chain that hauled and lifted palm fronds twice the youngsters' size up to the waiting hands of adult helpers, who laid the massive leaves atop the airy structure, called a sukkah.
The festival of Sukkot--which literally means "booths"--is celebrated during the cycle of religious observances that occur around the Jewish New Year. It is characterized by the building and decorating of the sukkah, made with only inedible plant materials, such as tree limbs.
Keeping with tradition, the fronds were loosely spaced so that the sukkah's inhabitants would be able to see the stars at night and feel closer to the heavens.
"This is so much fun because we get to experience what it felt like being someone who lived in biblical times," said Megan Miller, 8.
The sukkah represents hastily built huts constructed by Jews during their wanderings in the desert, after their exodus from Egypt. Today, those who observe the seven-day festival--which began Friday at sundown--recite prayers and partake of meals in the structure.
Lauren Pill, 9, pointed out the symbolic meaning of her labors. "I'm hanging up fruit to remind us to have a sweet new year."
Participants also carry bound branches of palm, myrtle and willow trees--called the lulav--which represent the physical attributes of humans, and a citron (also known as ertog, a bitter lemon-like fruit), which represents their spirituality.
"This whole season is very much like a symphony," said Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, Adat Ari El's spiritual leader. "Different themes blend together, both the physical and the spiritual, and to me it has always been so beautiful."
Because the holiday traditionally is celebrated at harvest time, it gives participants a chance to decorate the sukkah with fruit and vegetables. They often also bring in works of art or colorful pictures.
"We bring the finest dishes inside and special pictures to enhance the experience," Rothblum said. "It's an opportunity to feel God's presence and create a religious element in our lives."
As I caught a whiff of the freshly cut greens and watched the children scurrying around with flowers and fruits in hand, I was transported to the autumn of my childhood in Pittsburgh.
For me, autumn conjures memories of colorful foliage, apple cider, wool sweaters and jack-o'-lanterns. But after my family moved to Van Nuys when I was 10, fall became nothing more than an extension of summer.
For the first Sukkot in our new home, my sister, brother and I decorated the large wisteria arbor over our backyard patio. Somehow in spite of the warm weather, I felt the change in seasons.
For an entire week, every time I stood inside our sukkah, I pretended that I was back in Pittsburgh amid the blazing trees and crisp air that signaled the beginning of my favorite season.
In later years, we invited neighborhood kids of all faiths to help us decorate our makeshift sukkah. We hung dried corn and gourds, as well as pomegranates from our neighbors' trees.
A child's loud giggle startled me out of my reverie. An unexpected breeze had lifted the hem of a beautiful batik cloth hanging on one of the sukkah's walls, and it came to rest on top of the girl's head, creating a gigantic, old-fashioned veil.
"By participating in these festivities, the children get a connection to our people," said Esther Bar-Shai, Adat Ari El's Hebrew and Judaica teacher. "They perform the blessings and share the joy with their families and friends."
Next week, the school will have Pizza and Pajamas night, where the children will eat dinner, hear stories and sing songs in the sukkah they decorated. They may be eating pizza instead of pomegranates, but the children who stand inside that sukkah will look up at the same stars as their ancestors did. And perhaps with the same sense of renewal.