If I could only visit Israel once I year, I would pick Sukkot. The entire country celebrates together for an entire week, combining family, religion, and country. But this is also an expensive Holiday – putting aside the sukkah, lulav and etrog, entertainment for 6 days of Chol HaMoed is a lot. As always, knowledge is the key, and planning frugally, your best friend:
#1 – If you can’t afford a Sukkah start simple and build on it every year. When I built my Sukkah back in New City, NY (ten points for whoever has heard of New City), I built a simple cube with tarps for walls. The first few years we used a couple of bamboo sticks and branches for the schach. Every year, we bought another part to make the Succah a bit better (a bamboo mat, better wood, nicer decorations etc.) and after 5 years we had every gadget a Sukkah could ever need. If we were to have spent all of our money on every item in one year, or buy a fancy pre-made one, it never would have happened.
#2 – Learn the halachot of lulav and etrog. People waste tons of money every year in pure ignorance of these laws. Many buy a pre-packaged “mehudar” set of the 4 species, that is very often not mehudar, and sometimes even not kosher (this is NOT done intentionally. When they are packaged, they are mehudar, but once in transport, merchandise often gets damaged). Learn the Halachot and check out the bargain bins of the etrogim. If you are willing to spend some time, you’ll very often find a kosher, mehudar etrog for a fraction of the mehudar price. (For those looking, this is a good site with most of the laws). If you’re afraid that you’ll buy something not Kosher, then go to a shuk that has a Rabbi there to check if what you are buying is Kosher (this is very common in Israel – even in small places like Petah Tikvah).
#3 – Travel with food – There are plenty of events and attractions all over Israel. Most are very cheap, but plan to make their profit with extremely overpriced food. Bring some food so you don’t break the bank on temptation.
#4 – Budget Chol HaMoed / Plan your trips – This year we have a long Chol HaMoed. Begin by asking yourself how much you can spend. Now write down the list of activities you want to do and see what can fit your budget and what cannot. It is important to understand the tradeoffs of what you can manage (ie. “if we go to this festival, then we cannot go to that one”, or “if we go here, we have to bring our own food to these two events.”). Then choose the combination that best suits your family.
#5 – Shop for a babysitter in advance. If you have to work on Chol HaMoed, then you’ll need someone to watch your kids. Go to shul and ask the Rabbi if he knows of a trustworthy girl who could use the extra cash. Meet her, have her spend a couple of hours with your family and then let her watch your kids for a day or two. Consider finding another family where the parents need to work so the babysitter can watch both sets of kids and make more money, while saving each parent some money individually.
#6 – Spend a night at the shtiebels. Go one night to an area with a bunch of different Chasidic sects and go from one party to another. When I was in Jerusalem I went from Boyan to Karlin (where they danced what seemed to be the largest real-live game of snake ever) to Toldas Aharon and a bunch of others in-between. Despite media portrayals, Chassidim are very welcoming to outsiders, even irreligious Jews, as long as you respect their requests (when they ask “no pictures”, that means no pictures.)
#7 – Have a Sukkot party (that does not focus on food alone!) – Invite some friends over and play some games from “Whose Line is it Anyway?”. Play Pictionary, Apples to Apples or something that can entertain your guests. Remember, the real secret to making through rough economic times is returning to a time when togetherness and simplicity entertained us, not expensive objects.
#8 – Use your Sukkah. I always find it odd that many people build a fancy, expensive Sukkah, and only use it to eat their meals. This is your house – spend a night playing board games. Tell stories together. Get everyone to help out when transforming the Sukkah from a dining room to a living room. Heck, nowadays you can bring in your computer and watch a movie in the Sukkah. It can only be homey if you make it your home.
#9 – Find free stuff to do – there are usually a variety of free festivals around Israel where you can bring the family and enjoy. If anyone would like to mention any festivals they have heard about or have some more money saving ideas, please list them below.