In survey after survey, American Jews name Chanukah and Passover as their favorite holidays. Not Rachel Ornstein-Packer. Sukkot has always been at the top of her list.
“When I was a kid, Sukkot was a constantly revolving door of people coming into the house and celebrating and eating,” says Ornstein-Packer, an Olney resident who grew up in a close-knit family in Queens, N.Y. “Our sukkah was very small. It was on our porch. We would all kind of shove in there and we were all cozy. Even though it really couldn’t seat all of us, we managed to make it work. For me, it was just a very happy holiday.”
A writer and wellness coach, Ornstein-Packer, 53, loves Sukkot so much that she published a children’s book about it in 2016. “Sky-High Sukkah” was based on a childhood experience.
One year, Ornstein-Packer’s father decided to build a sukkah from scratch. But he had no idea how to do it. A neighbor called Ricardo took her father to the lumber store, then built the entire Sukkah for Ornstein-Packer’s family.
“I was so enamored by the fact that someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to help us build something for a Jewish holiday,” says Ornstein-Packer.
In “Sky-High Sukkah,” a girl who lives in a city high rise wants a sukkah, but there is nowhere to build it. With the help of the neighborhood fruit man and her community, she gets her sukkah after all.
Ornstein-Packer says she wants her own kids to have warm feelings about Sukkot, which begins at sunset on Oct. 2.
“The whole concept of friendship, kindness, community and coming together — that’s why I really love that holiday so much. I also just love the autumnal feel,” Ornstein-Packer says. “But really, it’s being able to have people over just to sit in the sukkah” — the tradition called ushpizin.
She says the pandemic is forcing some changes in her family’s celebration. They will Zoom to celebrate with their extended family instead of in person. But it’s not all bad.
“The nice thing about this year is everybody’s home. In years past, my husband was always traveling. He didn’t even get to eat in the sukkah. My daughter, Leah, is home from college this year, so we’ll be getting to eat in the sukkah as a family.”
Leah is studying online this semester and Ornstein-Packer noticed she did not have many cooking skills. So since they were both home, she decided to teach her daughter how to cook. Then they decided to whip up a cooking channel for college kids, “Because I Said So.” Ornstein-Packer is knowledgeable about food from her work as a wellness coach and a freelance writer who covers food allergies and nutrition.
“We normally wouldn’t have spent this year together. [Leah] would have been on campus, so working on this project with her has been amazing and I love that we can help other college students make simple meals,” says Ornstein-Packer.
Mother and daughter also decided to create some meals for the Jewish holidays and recently prepared a Rosh Hashanah recipe. For the fall segment of their cooking show, they are also going to talk about harvest foods, which Ornstein-Packer associates with Sukkot.
“There’s no specific Sukkot food. It’s more like Rosh Hashanah and it kind of extends to the whole fall season, so we’re looking into a pumpkin recipe which we have not nailed down, and we also wanted to do a kale salad,” Ornstein-Packer says.
She says they are focusing on produce and vegetables that are both seasonal and nutritious for Sukkot.
This favorite holiday just keeps getting better and better.