Sukkot, the eight-day festival that begins Oct. 11, commemorates a central event in Jewish history: the 40-year desert trek that followed the exodus from Egypt when Jews lived in portable shelters or booths.
People celebrate the holiday by building, eating in -- and sometimes sleeping in -- a temporary structure topped by a "natural" covering, such as tree branches or a bamboo mat which allows star-gazing. The structure is a show of trust in God's protection. During the festival -- sometimes called "Tabernacles" and "The Harvest Festival" -- we also say a blessing over the four species: the lulav, etrog, hadas and arava.
Around town, people celebrate the holiday in extraordinary ways.
One is the raucous potluck party thrown annually on Sukkot by Joan Kaye, director of O.C.'s Bureau of Jewish Education. Equal parts barn-raising and decorator open-house, she suffuses the event with a seasoning of religious meaning.
At a previous sukkot party hosted by Kaye, Polaroid pictures were snapped of arriving guests. Each then puttered at a craft table to fashion the image into a decorative ornament.
Taking a cue from the immigrant anniversary, this year Kaye asked guests to string up an item that represents the melding of Jewish and American values. A kippah with a soccer-ball design may be Kaye's own contribution to the sukkah's current motif.
"It's a great party with a purpose," said Kathleen Canter, 38, of Aliso Viejo, who has attended more than one of Kaye's sukkah-raisings with her husband and two children.
The holiday is Kaye's personal favorite. But since moving here seven years ago from Boston, her celebration has taken a new direction.
"It's a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah," said Kaye, who for seven days spends as much time as possible -- with the exception of sleeping -- on the patio her guests transform. Outfitted with a clock, lamp and table, she holds meetings there. She also entertains guests under its shelter. "You couldn't do that in Boston," she said.
Like Christmas trees that remain decorated long past Jan. 1, Kaye hates to pack away the sukkah's strands of lights, ceramic fruit and leafy garlands. "I've left the everyday world and moved into holy space for a week," she said.
Her Sukkot event begins with a chaotic sukkah-raising that is both a communal event and learning opportunity. The patio of Kaye's condo is conveniently three-sided and partially covered with open beams, which meet the de facto booth-making requirements without effort. But guests, including some bearing palm fronds, soon are fully employed stringing colored lights and festooning the beams with decorations, including the guest-created theme ornaments. Open beams are reached by crawling out upstairs windows.
Most people don't erect a sukkah at all or mark the holiday by relying on their synagogue-built sukkah, said Larry Kaplan, 48, of Irvine, who brought his family. He said Kaye's event is special, "because many more hands are doing it. It's the sense of a disparate community coming together for a repetitive communal event."
"It doesn't reek of being a religious event," added Rosalie Holub, 71, of Tustin, who helps Kaye organize craft materials. "It's a multi-generational party where adults do kid stuff."
Decorating aesthetics are not the point. By taking part in beautifying the sukkah, children not only take pride in their individual contributions, but the event itself becomes more meaningful, said Holub, a primary grade teacher at Adat Chavarim in Los Alamitos.
Kaye's guest list includes her 11-person havarua, the bureau's staff and new board members, and people who have missed a sukkah experience. Last year, that included her Christian classmates from a doctoral program. This year, will include Kaye's two daughters and four grandchildren. The event began out of pure necessity as more than one of Kaye's Boston-built sukkahs collapsed.
Another American-stamped Sukkot experience is the Oct. 18 men's campout organized by Matthew Keces of Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El.
About 25 members are expected to participate in the fourth Sukkot trip to Escondido's Lake Dixon. On these occasions, the tents function as the traditional sukkah, Keces said. Providing a religious component will be Rabbi Michael Churgel, who intends to say the blessings over the four species, the lulav and etrog.
"It's very relaxed and everyone puts aside any demeanor they have to maintain in the real world," Keces said. Besides boating and fishing, last year everyone in the group ranging in age from 30 to 70 joined in a whiffle ball game. "Everyone was 17 again," he said.
For $50 per person, the synagogue rents camping equipment and supplies food, and Keces organizes carpools that caravan from his home.
"We make it as easy as possible," he said. Member Ken Roane, a former Ritz-Carlton chef, prepares meals.
"Food is a treat," Keces said. "It certainly is not camp-out style food."
No, it's Sukkot "American style."