Sukkot, the celebration of the harvest cornucopia

Having welcomed a New Year and a fresh start at Rosh Hashanah, repented on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and been forgiven our sins, it is time to celebrate.

Sukkot, the harvest festival that is among the oldest and most joyous of Jewish holidays, began at sunset last night and continues for seven days, followed by two separate days of prayer and celebration - Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

During Sukkot, meals are eaten in a sukkah, a temporary outdoor structure open to the sky and the elements though shaded by greenery and adorned with fruits of the harvest, a reminder of huts used by the Israelites while wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

While no specific foods or dishes are eaten during Sukkot, citron (a large, lemon-like fruit) is part of the daily prayer rituals in synagogues.

And foods from the local harvest are typically included on menus. In the Ashkenazic tradition, kreplach or stuffed cabbage might be included, while Sephardic Jews are apt to serve couscous with a variety of vegetables. In cooler climates, casseroles, hearty one-pot meals, and main-dish pies are favored for convenience.

Most common are stuffed foods - grape leaves, ravioli, gnocchi, wontons, blintzes, pierogi, cabbage, peppers, squash, gefilte fish, poultry and pastries - foods found worldwide and likened by some to small cornucopias.

Non-Jews often compare harvest-themed Sukkot to the singular American Thanksgiving celebration. Indeed, noted Mayflower historian Caleb Johnson has proposed that the deeply religious Puritans among Mayflower colonists very likely based America's first "day of Thanksgiving" on biblical references to Sukkot.

Their faith, he said, would not allow participation in a festival or holiday that didn't have that biblical sanction. The Puritans, he noted, also spent time among Sephardic Jews in Holland before coming to the New World.

Melons Stuffed with Fruits and Vegetables

Makes 6 servings

3 small melons (cantaloupe is a good choice)

4 tablespoons oil, divided use

2 cups thinly sliced carrots

2 tablespoons seedless white raisins

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 cup chopped green apple

1 cup chopped green onion, green part only

1/2 cup grated lemon rind

3 cups cooked rice

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1. Cut each melon in half. Remove and discard the seeds. Scoop out the fruit in bite-size pieces and reserve.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a saute pan. Saute the carrots and raisins together until the carrots soften. Add the salt, pepper, apple, green onion, and lemon rind. Cook about 3 minutes more. Remove from heat; let cool.

3. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 325 degrees. Combine the sauteed mixture with the cooked rice. Divide the mixture in the melon halves. Divide 2 cups of reserved melon pieces over the stuffed melon halves. Put the melons in a baking dish and bake at 325 to heat through, about 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small pan and saute the pine nuts until lightly browned, a few minutes, taking care not to burn them. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over the stuffed melons and serve warm.

- Adapted from The Yemenite Cookbook

by Zion Levi and Hani Agabria

Per serving: 380 calories, 6 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 464 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.