The Very Best Sukkah: A Sto­ry from Uganda

Shoshana Nam­bi; Moran Yogev, illus. 

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.

Discussion Questions

Every year dur­ing Sukkot, each fam­i­ly in the Abayu­daya com­mu­ni­ty of Ugan­da choos­es a Sukkah dec­o­ra­tion theme that high­lights the gifts and cre­ativ­i­ty of that fam­i­ly. Delight­ful Soshi wants her fam­i­ly to win the annu­al Sukkah dec­o­rat­ing com­pe­ti­tion and has been gath­er­ing Nsam­bya tree branch­es for the roof. The art teacher dec­o­rates her Sukkah with art from her stu­dents. Oth­er fam­i­lies choose man­goes, bananas, pas­sion fruits, pineap­ples, and jack­fruits to dec­o­rate theirs, mak­ing the vil­lage smell like sweet, ripen­ing fruit by the end of the eight-day hol­i­day. When a sud­den storm destroys the Sukkah of Dau­di and his daugh­ter Rebec­ca, who have dec­o­rat­ed their booth with bat­tery-pow­ered lights and fan­cy embroi­dery from the city of Mbale, author Shoshana Nam­bi, a rab­binic stu­dent, shows com­mu­ni­ty reliance with­out being didac­tic or cur­tail­ing self-expres­sion in her char­ac­ters. Soshi’s desire to be the win­ner is heart-warm­ing and encour­ages self-reflec­tion. Visu­al artist Moran Yogev, who has fam­i­ly roots in Ethiopia, invites us into the Abayu­daya com­mu­ni­ty with attrac­tive East African pat­terns and soul-stir­ring col­ors. This dis­tinc­tive book not only opens us to the cel­e­bra­to­ry life of the Abayu­daya but also inspires new ways to high­light Jew­ish cel­e­bra­tions through­out our world community.