The Very Best Sukkah: A Sto­ry from Uganda

Shoshana Nam­bi; Moran Yogev, illus. 

  • Review
By – October 3, 2022

Shoshana Nambi’s and Moran Yogev’s dis­tinc­tive new pic­ture book about the hol­i­day of Sukkot will sure­ly offer many read­ers a fresh per­spec­tive. Set in Uganda’s Abayu­daya Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, The Very Best Sukkah at once fills a gap in Jew­ish children’s lit­er­a­ture and expert­ly com­mu­ni­cates seri­ous and lay­ered themes.

Shoshi and her broth­er Avram live with their grand­par­ents, with whom they observe Jew­ish prac­tices dai­ly. Their jaj­ja, or grand­moth­er, pre­pares kalo bread for Shab­bat using mil­let and cas­sa­va, and their rab­bi speaks to his con­gre­gants while gath­ered under a man­go tree. Along­side these unique ele­ments of African Jew­ish life, read­ers will find many points of con­tact as Shoshi and her friends pre­pare for Sukkot. Nambi’s tone is nev­er didac­tic; her char­ac­ters are indi­vid­u­als embed­ded in a spe­cif­ic vil­lage, where the chil­dren count the stars in the sky and the local seam­stress sews cur­tains for her sukkah.

The fes­ti­val of Sukkot is not the only sub­ject of the book, how­ev­er. When the year­ly com­pe­ti­tion for who can con­struct the best sukkah begins, both excite­ment and ten­sion abound. On the very first page, Shoshi is intro­duced as a child who races to school in order to be the first to arrive. Her jaj­ja has to remind her that life is not a com­pe­ti­tion,” a phrase that will com­fort any child who has been asked, even pres­sured, to excel. A joy­ous com­mu­nal cel­e­bra­tion will be some­what dimin­ished, Shoshi’s jaj­ja seems to say, if indi­vid­ual achieve­ment is the goal. When a severe storm ruins some of the con­tend­ing struc­tures, peo­ple feel appro­pri­ate­ly sad­dened and even reflect on their own respon­si­bil­i­ty. Most all Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties have super­sti­tions, so it is not sur­pris­ing when some of the Abayu­daya ques­tion whether their being jeal­ous of one member’s elab­o­rate sukkah has caused the destruction.

Yogav’s illus­tra­tions, which draw col­or from the nat­ur­al world, are deeply root­ed in both tra­di­tion­al African and Israeli art. A group por­trait of coop­er­a­tive activ­i­ty shows every­one work­ing to repair the dam­age — car­ry­ing new branch­es, shar­ing food, and singing togeth­er — to ensure that col­lab­o­ra­tion takes prece­dence over win­ning a prize. Both words and images insist that Jews every­where should come togeth­er like the dif­fer­ent branch­es of the lulav.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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