What makes the Jewish holiday of Sukkot memorable for me is something I have loved to do ever since I first got my own set of the Four Kinds, the lulav and etrog set. We are commanded to shake the Four Kinds every morning of the eight-day holiday (excluding the Sabbath), and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, taught us to take our lulav and etrog and pass it around to whomever else would be willing to recite the blessing and do a “shake.”

The four species are often correlated with particular body parts. The etrog (citron) is likened to the human heart, the lulav (palm frond) is related to the spine, the aravot (willows) represent the mouth, and the hadasim (myrtles) are likened to the eyes.

So, as I approached my twenties, I was determined to overcome my shyness and have the chutzpah and backbone (lulav) to approach people heart to heart (etrog), address them with my speech (aravot) and look them straight in the eye (hadasim) to ask if they would like to say a blessing on the Four Kinds, which the sages say bring unity to the Jewish people.

As I approached my twenties, I was determined to overcome my shyness and have the chutzpah to approach people and ask if they would like to say a blessing on the Four Kinds, which the sages say bring unity to the Jewish people. At first, the outright “no”s intimidated me, as did those who explained that they were too busy, or too lacking in knowledge to say a blessing in Hebrew. My favorite haunts used to be hospitals and nursing homes, before they got so strict that they would not let a stranger walk into a room or even read the name on the door to see if the resident might be Jewish.

At first I limited my visits to people I knew, or people who were recommended by others. Then I gradually began to include neighbors and residents of adjacent rooms. After a while, I even gathered the courage to approach the doctors and nurses in the elevators. On one occasion I met a doctor in an elevator and followed him to the top floor of the building, because it took a while to convince him to do the blessing and shake!

Then came the miracles. Once I walked into a room where a relative sat with an obviously ill patient. I made my pitch and the woman said, “Don’t bother, he hasn’t spoken for a year.” I responded, “That’s okay, I’ll just place it in his hands.” I placed the lulav and etrog properly in his hands. The man recited the blessing on his own. The jaws of those around him, including mine, dropped wide open and the woman began to sob. I tiptoed out, still in a daze.

Yehudis with her lulav and etrog set.
Yehudis with her lulav and etrog set.
Another time, I met a blind young man from South America. I don’t even remember if he spoke English. His name was obviously Jewish, so I placed the lulav in his hands. He immediately recognized what it was, and recited the blessing after me. I gently took the lulav and etrog back, but before I knew it, he began crying buckets of tears. It seems that by shaking the Four Kinds, a deed he had not done in years, the young man was overcome with emotion. Touched, I too found myself weeping, and we cried together for a good ten minutes.

One man I met was supremely resistant. I was forewarned not to take it personally, since he was known to be a recalcitrant patient, and also very ill. We had a pleasant conversation, but the patient adamantly refused to shake the Four Kinds. I said goodbye, and walked away. Just as I got to the door, a booming voice rang out, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it. Come back here!”

Then there were the more humorous moments. In one nursing home, I approached an elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair. I gently placed the lulav and etrog in her hands. Her eyes lit up as she brought the etrog closer to them. I thought she wanted to examine it for flaws. Instead, she proceeded to try and take a bite out of the etrog. Fortunately, my hand was quicker than hers! Oh well, win some, lose some.

Actually, from a heavenly perspective, it’s always a win-win situation. The Rebbe told of a discouraged Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical student who travelled to bring Judaism to a small city in the Midwest. Upon his return, he told the Rebbe that he hadn’t found even one Jew.

The Rebbe informed the young man that he had received a letter from a woman in the very city he had visited. The letter-writer had been watching the young man from an upper story window. So inspired was she to see the student walking the streets proudly displaying his head covering (kippah) and white ritual fringes (tzitzit), that her soul was awoken at that moment, initiating a process that would eventually lead her back to the path of Judaism.

Perhaps the strange sight of a young woman strolling down a hospital corridor waving a palm branch and a yellow-green citron was enough to activate some Jewish genes. Even if there were no takers on that particular day, my Jewish soul was singing, and the music must have been heard somewhere.