Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Photogenic Sukkot Festival -- 100+ Years Ago. Another Mystery Photo

The Jewish festival of Sukkot is called by several names: the Harvest festival, the Joyous festival, and the festival of Booths.  Jewish families construct temporary huts -- Sukkot -- where they eat and some even sleep for the week-long holiday.  Jews traditionally pray during the holiday while holding a citron fruit and branches of myrtle, palm and willow branches -- called the lulav and etrog.

Jews sitting in their Samarkand Sukka (circa 1870, Library of Congress). More on Samarkand Jewry here.

Bukharan family in their Jerusalem sukka (circa 1900). Note the man on the right holding the citron and palm branch
(Library of Congress collection).  Compare this sukka to one photographed in Samarkand 30 years earlier
And Now the Mystery Picture -- The Occasion for this Photo

We recently found this photograph of Australian soldiers at the Western Wall in an Australian library archives and posted it on this site. The men fought in World War I in Palestine in 1917-1918.

Australian soldiers at the Western Wall, picture taken by "R. F. Ingham, 1st L."
 (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia)
What was going on at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City?

The reason for the kittel
We went back and inspected the photo closely.    
The shadows suggest it was photographed around noon. Several men appear to be wearing white caftans, called a kittel, normally worn on Yom Kippur. But if the day were Yom Kippur, where were the throngs of worshippers?

Another section of the picture may provide the answer.  It suggests the day was actually the seventh day of Sukkot, a day called Hoshana Rabba, when some men have a custom to wear a kittel. The hour was well beyond the traditional morning prayer period so the crowd was sparse.

The lulav and etrog
The woman conversing with the Australian soldier may be holding a lulav (between her left shoulder and knee); the soldier may be holding the etrog.

Sukkot 1918 would have been a holiday for everyone in the picture: The Jews were liberated from the oppressive Turks, and the Australians Light Horsemen were on their way home after hard-fought battles in the Sinai, Beer Sheba, and east of the Jordan River. 

 The date: September 27, 1918.


  1. you forgot to mention the umbrella, which would put a big question mark on the idea that this was on Yom Kippur..

  2. There's a book by Col Stringer on the Australian Light Horse and it's worth getting. Gives some background on Jewish emancipation and Napoleon.

  3. Still the almost total lack of lulavim, even if your assumption about the lady is correct, is intriguing in that it would vitiate your conclusion as well as so few in kittel. But maybe it was later in the day and everyone went home after 2-3 hours of prayer. Then again, why not a picture of the circumventing? Or perhaps the soldeirs arrived too late. So many options.