Sukkahs that captured a city’s imagination to go nationwide

It was a surprise hit on the cultural roster of a city that may be the most culturally busy city in the nation.

And even though the Sukkah City architectural competition in New York is being dismantled this week, look for Sukkah City next year in a town near you.

“Our goal is to fan it out across the nation next year to 15 cities,” said Roger Bennett, who put together the sukkah competition with writer Josh Foer.

More than 620 participants from 43 countries submitted designs for sukkahs, the outdoor booths Jews build on the Sukkot holiday. A dozen finalists, chosen by an expert panel, were constructed for two days in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Thousands of visitors wandered through the sukkahs; more than 17,000 voters cast ballots for their favorite.

The winning design—“Fractured Bubble” by Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan, which one reporter described as an “exploding coconut”—was left up alone for the duration of the holiday ending Friday.

Who would have thought a bunch of wild and crazy huts would generate such attention?

The project became a media darling. Reporters from The Wall Street Journal to The Los Angeles Times gushed and cooed over the cutting-edge sukkahs, all of which had to conform to halachah, or Jewish law: more than two walls; a roof made of organic material that provides more shade than sun but allows for views of the stars; no taller than 20 cubits but higher than 10 handbreadths.

“I’m not surprised at the buzz,” said Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum in lower Manhattan, where two of the 12 winning structures spent the past few days on display after they were taken down in Union Square on Sept. 20. “It reflects the natural interest in a contemporary understanding of traditional forms.”

Bennett, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and co-founder of Reboot, a network for Jewish innovation, said one inspiration for the competition was to rescue Sukkot, one of the Bible’s three pilgrimage festivals, from its neglect by non-observant American Jews.

“We wanted to take Sukkot, a 21st century festival of meaning, and place it back on the pedestal where it belongs,” Bennett told JTA. “Themes of homelessness, of scarcity and abundance, of hospitality—there are few more important values embedded in a ritual than these.”

One of the finalist designs took the homeless theme literally. “Sukkah of the Signs,” conceived by an architectural firm in Oakland, Calif., utilized nearly 300 signs bought from homeless people in the San Francisco Bay area to illustrate the transient nature of the shelter provided by a sukkah.

In keeping with the theme, the wildly fanciful and elaborately constructed finalists themselves had short life spans.

Following their two-day presentation in the park, two were carted off to the Yeshiva University Museum, one went to the JCC in Manhattan and a couple were sold to private collectors, according to Bennett. Several ended up on the sidewalks of New York, cast off and abandoned.

New York Times writer Ariel Kaminer noticed that one runner-up sukkah, left by its creators on an Upper West Side sidewalk, was commandeered by a few local families. They “had run home and grabbed food, then reconvened under the stars,” moving with an alacrity Kaminer chalked up, at least partially, to “the lengths to which New Yorkers will go for outdoor seating.”

Sukkah City is inspiring other ventures.

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles already had commissioned a local firm to design its public sukkah; education director Sheri Bernstein said it “wasn’t inspired per se” by the New York contest.

“But we were inspired by the goals of the project, which tapped into something of interest not only to the Jewish community but the larger community: issues of shelter and caring for the earth and the world around us,” she said. “When we heard about Sukkah City, it confirmed that this is of interest to people. It’s a point where Jewish values can connect with issues of wider concern.”

On Huts and Hospitality

“You shall live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43).

It’s not enough commemoration that for eight days of Pesach we eat matzo, which grows exponentially more afflictive every year. No, six months later, to celebrate Sukkot, God commands us to dwell in flimsy, temporary huts that shake in the wind and sport leaky roofs.

Never mind that while we Jews move into sukkahs, with their often nippy alfresco ambience, most other people, cognizant of the shorter days and cooler temperatures, are putting up storm windows and firing up their furnaces.

Of course, that’s precisely the point, to re-create and re-experience the fragile and unsubstantial structures that housed the Israelites for 40 years as they wandered in the wilderness. We reconnect to our peripatetic and uncertain beginnings and to our historical homelessness, once again putting our faith in God’s protective powers.

But the frailness eludes my children. “Sometimes I’d rather live in a sukkah than a house,” says my son Danny, 8. “A sukkah is holy, and God watches over holy places.”

“Having a sukkah makes me feel like I’m really celebrating the holiday,” says Gabe, 12.

Until last year, however, we had to rely on the kindness of friends to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.

But thanks primarily to Gabe, who lobbied long and hard for a sukkah of our own, we are the proud proprietors of a 10-foot-by-10-foot wood lattice-work tabernacle that fulfills our basic requirements: easy-to-assemble, no tools needed.

It also fulfills Judaism’s requirement of three walls at least 7 handbreadths long, 10 handbreadths wide and 10 handbreadths high. That translates to a minimum size of 17.5-inches-by-25-inches-by-25-inches, assuming the width of your four fingers is closer to 2.5 inches than 4 inches, but barely accommodating a family of small vertical weasels.

The other requirement is that the roof be covered with s’chach, a natural material in its natural state, such as bamboo or palm leaves, that cannot be eaten. The covering must provide more shade than sunlight but allow one to see the stars at night. Of course, successfully viewing the stars through the clouds and smog of the Los Angeles Basin constitutes an even greater miracle than liberation from Egypt.

We are instructed not only to build, decorate and dwell in our sukkah, with “dwelling” roughly and most commonly translated as “eating,” but also to welcome in ushpizin, Aramaic for guests, who traditionally include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.

This year, in addition to these celestial celebrities from the Bible, we have a special guest from the land of the Bible, from a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He is Ya’ir Cohen, 15, an enthusiastic participant in an exchange program, now in its second year, between Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple and Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, that is part of a broader Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership 2000.

Ya’ir, along with 18 other Israeli students, is enjoying an American Jewish experience that is academic, cultural, entertaining and religious, as he observes Reform and Conservative Judaism firsthand. He is living with us for the months of September, October and November, from the High Holidays through Thanksgiving.

The 38 American and Israeli 10th-grade students in the exchange program, speaking to each other in a comfortable mix of Hebrew and English, are all cosmopolitan, cyber-savvy, curious and indefatigable. They study, sightsee and prowl malls together, sharing secrets, slang and CDs. They play football and baseball and, this week, build sukkahs and bridges of friendship.

“Ya’ir’s cool,” my son Jeremy, 10, says proudly, and not only because Ya’ir plays basketball with him and helps with his Hebrew homework.

Already, after only a few weeks, I can see that my son Zack’s life will be forever expanded and enriched — with a life-long attachment to Israel and his new Israeli friends.

In the spring, Zack will live with Ya’ir and his family, attending Tichon Chadash High School, touring Israel and celebrating Pesach, Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut as a “sabra.”

The Bible tells us that Sukkot, even more than the other pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, is the season to rejoice. We rejoice that we have completed the difficult and introspective work of the High Holidays. We rejoice that my husband, Larry, and his crew of five boys succeeded in assembling the sukkah — perhaps not hastily, like the Israelites’ huts, but certainly challengingly and congenially.

And we rejoice that, although the sukkah is intentionally flimsy and temporary, our love of family, Judaism and our new Israeli “sibling” is solid and enduring.

Sukkot is indeed the season to rejoice.