For the majority of Israelis – called chiloni or “secular” in Israel – Sukkot means a week off from school and thus is a good time for family vacations. In certain neighborhoods, leafy, decorated sukkot (huts) add beautiful color to yards and even apartment balconies, provided the balconies offer views of the sky through the sukkahs’ loosely placed roof covering, known as s’chach.
Indicative of Sukkot’s lack of popularity is the dearth of modern, Israeli children’s songs about the holiday. Because Israeli society places a great deal of attention on family and children, we can learn a lot about the country’s trends and priorities from the songs it produces to educate and acculturate its youth.
There is, however, at least one iconic, modern Hebrew song about Sukkot – written by Naomi Shemer, whose life and musical legacy is intimately intertwined with the first 50 years of the State of Israel. Shemer’s repertoire celebrates both historical events and everyday relationships. She self-consciously created Israeli culture in the young country where she spent a most prolific adult life. A good portion of that cultural mission took form in songs for children.
In 1971, she wrote “Shlomit Builds a Sukkah.” Looking carefully at the lyrics to the music’s longing quality, we realize this composition is more than a simple holiday song for children. Shemer is a skilled artist – drawing images and references from the full spectrum of Jewish and Hebrew tradition to create a contemporary and relevant message, one that is still vitally important after almost 50 years.
From the song’s opening words, Shemer provokes children and other listeners to think twice:
Shlomit is building a sukkah
Full of light and greenery
That's why today she's so busy.
But it's not simply a sukkah
Full of light and greenery -
Shlomit is building a sukkah of peace
The songwriter’s protagonist is a young girl who, all by herself, is building the sukkah. The question of what young girls can and should do physically may come from Shemer’s growing up on one of the first socialist kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz), where talks about gender equality were ongoing. For children from families in which sukkot are built each year, it likely is the father who takes charge of this holiday preparation. Shemer boldly asks us: “Why can’t a girl build a sukkah?”
This question, however, is not only about a sukkah.
And, indeed, Shlomit’s sukkah has all the holiday-specific and seasonal decorations expected – palm branches, myrtle leaves, and pomegranates. But living up to her name, derived from the Hebrew word shalom (meaning “peace”), this young girl builds a sukkah of peace. Shemer’s inspiration for the idealistic sukkah comes from the liturgy. Hashkiveinu – the evening blessing that follows the Shema asks God to “spread over us the shelter of Your peace.”
In her description of this sukkah of peace, Shemer plants the idea among children that it’s not enough to think about ideas; they also must be acted upon. Shlomit’s sukkah is not one of peace in name only:
And when Shlomit says
Look! It's already finished!
Suddenly something wondrous will happen:
All the neighbors will come,
It will be a swarm -
And there will be room for everyone!
According to some interpreters, Shemer was thinking big when she sang about neighbors teeming into the sukkah. Like others at the time, perhaps she saw the possibility that Israel and its neighbors could live in peace one day soon.
Fifty years later, the song’s longing melody and would-be message feel all the more prescient given Israel’s ongoing search for answers to Naomi Shemer’s call.