I’m inclined to agree with Rabbi Grossman about the virtues of Sukkot relative to Yom Kippur. Too many American Jews are “twice-a-year Jews,” meaning they show up at synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Now granted, these are extremely important holidays, but they also give a skewed picture of what Judaism is, with their emphasis on sin and atonement. More than one rabbi has observed how different American Jews’ sense of Judaism would be if they came twice a year, on Simchat Torah and Purim. The sense of joy and celebration would certainly be a corrective to a stereotype of Jews as anxious and guilt-laden. Again, not that the High Holidays and their message aren’t important–but they need the other holidays of the annual cycle–not to mention the weekly celebration of Shabbat–to put them in their proper perspective.
Why does Sukkot get such short shrift? I think in part because American Jewish life operates against the background of Protestant life, where there are only a few major holidays. Easter is the holiest day of the year, so in Jewish terms, that’s either Yom Kippur (with Rosh Hashanah thrown in for good measure) or Passover (connected by season). Christmas is an important wintertime holiday, so that gives Jews Hanukkah–but that’s about it.
I think that many other Jewish holidays go unobserved because there isn’t a convenient Christian analogue (either thematically or seasonally) to “justify” them. This hypothesis is supported by a completely unscientific measure of the relative prominence of various Jewish holidays in the popular mind: seeing how many results you can get of Microsoft Office Clip Art designed for each holiday. The instructive results follow:
- Chanukah – 111 – all out of proportion with its importance in the Jewish calendar!
- Rosh Hashanah – 25
- Yom Kippur – 14
- Passover – 12
- Purim – 8
- Sukkot – 6
- Shavuot – 3
- Simchat Torah – 1
More seriously, my guess is that following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “holiday fatigue” sets in, which sadly prevents many American Jews from getting to know and explore the joys of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.