Celebrating Sukkot, Sri Lankan style

Celebrating Sukkot, Sri Lankan style

Six years and one tsunami have passed since I last visited Sri Lanka. This time I was invited by my parents, Leah and Jack Lore, to join them on tour as a photography guide while they lead a group of 30 Israelis to Sri Lanka for Sukkot. This was quite an offer I could not resist. I took off some vacation days from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades – where I work as assistant marketing director and staff photographer – packed all my gear, and prepared for a 27-hour long flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital (including a seven-hour stopover in London). This was a tight and risky travel plan, as I had to meet the group without delay or else I would be traveling alone into the jungle. Fortunately, there were no delays on any of the flights, and I landed on Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, erev Sukkot, and joined the group that flew in from Israel that morning and landed just one hour before me.

Tovit Lore is pictured in the reception area of the Kandalama Hotel.

This is the 15th time my parents, who specialize in tourism to Sri Lanka, have traveled here from Israel over the course of seven years.

A friendly local guide called Prielle (which we converted to Hebrew as “Pri”“El,” the fruit of God), and a very comfortable big golden bus waited to take us all into the heart of the 65,000 square-kilometer Island to celebrate our first evening of Sukkot in the Kandalama Hotel, near the village of Dambulla.

This magnificent hotel is almost invisible, as it is totally merged into the jungle and stretches for more than half a mile on six levels that follow the curves of a mountain. I cannot think of a more suitable setting to have a Sukkot celebration. The hotel is designed with open hallways and patios on every level, covered with tropical creepers, palms, and branches. Two long tables covered in white were set for us in one of these patios. The group brought with them from Israel kiddush wine, a beaker, challahs, candles, dates, and pomegranates. I was in charge of the sukkah decorations – “Welcome to our sukkah” signs in Hebrew, and gold-leafed cards depicting the seven fruits of Israel (shivat Haminim). By 7 p.m. the tables were ready for the Israeli guests, who came down to the patio only to find out that two minutes before, a sudden tropical thunderstorm had begun. The hotel staff immediately salvaged our setting by moving the tables into the dining room. We were not going allow the storm to spoil the happiness of this first evening of Sukkot. The ceremony took place near the sukkah, behind the glass doors, and the songs of Israel were heard all over the dining room by the Jewish guests as well as the Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.

Our group was joined by members of the temporary Jewish community of Sri Lanka. The local Chabad rabbi, Mandi Crombi, who lives in Colombo with his wife Talia and their two sons, said that there is no Jewish community in the country, only a handful of temporary residents on professional work contracts. Also, two more groups and a few dozen youngsters and honeymooners came to Sri Lanka for Sukkot. Crombi is here to offer young Israeli travelers, primarily divers and surfers, a place to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

The next day, we visited a hut with a palm-leaf thatched roof belonging to a local farmer. It looked just like a sukkah. The mother and her three daughters demonstrated how they prepare their traditional pita breads from hand-ground millet and water, baked quickly on banana leaves over burning coal, as well as the spicy sumbol sauce made of hand-ground coconut, chili, and shallots. I wondered how far this ancient tradition was from what the sons of Israel experienced on their journey from Egypt to Israel.

Sri Lanka, originally called Ceylon, was founded by a prince from northern India. It has been ruled by 180 kings over a period of 2,300 years. The island has a population of 21 million; 75 percent are Buddhist and the rest are Hindu, Catholic, and members of Muslim minorities.

Rained out of the sukkah, visible through glass doors, the visitors celebrated indoors. From left are guests Margalit Man, Itzik Flint, and Leah and Jack Lore. Tovit Lore

My parents have fallen quite in love with this magical island and its extremely hospitable people. They have many friends here, from government officials and their families to a local fisherman in the market, the farmer’s family, a local jeweler, and Sandya, an English teacher at an elementary school that all their groups visit. My mother has a theory that one of the lost tribes of Israel migrated to this Island and may have assimilated into the local population. After visiting the local villages, learning their customs and traditions, and participating in some wedding ceremonies, they noticed that some rural customs include interesting similarities to Jewish customs: For centuries Sri Lankans used a lunar calendar (only recently changed) and celebrate on the full moon. They marry under a hand-held “chuppah” under the sky. They celebrate, as in biblical times, the beginning of the year in the month of Nissan, and in this celebration they refrain from all bread and grain, aside from rice.

Whether the Sri Lankans have any link to Jewishness does not concern me. What I have noticed is that they are kind, warm, smiling, and hospitable people, and visiting their Island is truly a magical experience.

I have seven more days of sights, safari, elephant rides, ancient archeology, Buddhist temples, botanical and spice gardens, market places, turtle hatcheries, Cinnamon Island, and the tropical beach.

I will be returning with many photos taken by the group members and myself that will be posted on web and shared with our friends and the community at: www.picasaweb.google.com/tiyuleah.srilanka.

See you all on Monday, Oct. 4, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

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