My father spent his career building houses in New York’s Levittown, Long Island, condos in Sarasota, Fla. — and sukkot for our family. They weren’t elaborate affairs — just your basic frame construction of two-by-fours covered in translucent plastic. But as a child I always was proud of our home-designed and home-built sukkah, which rested in pieces in the garage for 11 months out of the year, only to emerge each fall and be festooned with Rosh Hashanah cards and with plastic fruit. Those sukkah kits that other people had — their antiseptic aluminum poles and nylon — just didn’t compare.
Depending on whom you ask, the origins of the sukkah are either Divine Providence or agricultural expediency. According to the Torah (see Leviticus 23:42), Jews dwell in sukkot today to commemorate the Israelites’ dwelling in booths in the wilderness. According to scholars, the Sukkot holiday was initially an agricultural festival, and the sukkot now available in ready-made kits are vestiges of huts constructed out in the fields for the last of the autumn harvest. Whatever the origins of the sukkah, the legal requirements are straightforward: either four, three or two-and-a-half solid walls (made of materials that don’t sway more than 4 inches in the wind), and a roof made of all-natural materials that block out most of the sun and that are put up only for the duration of the holiday.
There’s something magical about being inside of a sukkah; as Jewish commentators note, residing in the sukkah is one of the few commandments you fulfill with your entire body. Sure, it can seem a bit strange, especially in places like New York, where eating outside in October often means wearing a ski jacket. But there’s also a sense of being protected, perhaps not by sturdy brick walls but by what the Jewish liturgy calls “the tabernacle (sukkah) of peace.”
Still, there’s no question that building a sukkah takes a lot of work — which is why those ready-made sukkah kits fetch anywhere from $300 to $2,000 for a single-family size. It used to be that kit-made sukkot all had the look of the assembly line, but today the huts in which our ancestors dwelt while wandering through the wilderness are available in a bewildering array of materials, shapes, sizes and styles. Google “sukkah” today, and four of the five top hits are for sukkah manufacturers. Some, like sukkahdepot.com or Borough Park, Brooklyn’s The Sukkah Center, are big businesses with dozens of models — some of them actually patented. Others, such as Judith and Steve Henry Herman’s The Sukkah Project, are family affairs.
And some, like SukkahSoul, are basically selling works of art. Founded earlier this year, SukkahSoul is the work of Susan Shender, an architect who was inspired to create a more aesthetically appealing sukkah kit after erecting a kit made up of “unmarked pieces of unattractive pine and hardware store connectors.” Shender said that “the design problem captured my imagination.” She worked under the belief that the rabbinic obligation of hiddur mitzvah (the fulfillment of a commandment) could extend not just to decorating the sukkah but also to designing it.
The result is a delicate looking but architecturally sound construction of thin poles with cedar and translucent fabric sides. Inspired by the way that the Ten Sefirot — prisms of divine energy, according to Kabbalah — are arranged in the popular Tree of Life, the SukkahSoul design has triangular elements as well as rectangular ones. The Sefirot are already connected to the Sukkot holiday — they are represented by the seven ushpizin (mystical guests) invited to the sukkah over the course of the week. The SukkahSoul design weaves them into the architecture; if you look at it, you can almost see the Tree of Life in front of you, cradling the guests of the sukkah within its branches. Shender said, “I hope people find as much meaning and beauty in the structure of the SukkahSoul sukkah as I have in designing it.”
Of course, Shender is not the first architect to take on the challenge of building a better sukkah. The Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the Jerusalem Municipality and several other organizations have held sukkah design contests for many of the past several years. And as indicated in the 2003 exhibit (with a 2004 book by the same name) from The Israel Museum, A Movable Feast: Sukkahs From Around the World, curated by Rachel Sarfati, there have been as many diverse responses to the challenge of creating a beautiful sukkah as there are conceptions of beauty in the Jewish world. The book features gorgeous Bukharian designs displaying ikat panels, made of dyed silk fabrics, and Samaritan sukkot covered with mosaiclike patterns made entirely of fruit. It even features re-creations of Israel’s own Sukkah in the Desert, a former commune turned eco-tourist attraction in the Negev Desert. The display is made up of isolated, self-sustaining (and, in my experience, highly romantic) huts that resemble a cross between Bedouin tents and giant lulavim.
Contemporary artists, too, have been fascinated by the sukkah, both as an actual construction, and as a symbol for the yearning for home on the part of “wandering Jews.” In Sugar Plums: Different Meanings of “Home,” an exhibit now showing on New York City’s Upper West Side at the Jewish cultural center Makor (and, by way of full disclosure, featured in the journal I edit, Zeek), a group of artists explores the concept of home as a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Included in the exhibition is a postmodern sukkah project conceived by artists Merav Ezer and Jeremy Nadel. It’s not your average hut: The project looks a bit like an igloo, and it is partly made of — in the words of exhibit curator Anat Litwin — “recycled material, pop-culture waste and raw natural elements, thus creating a tension between organic and synthetic qualities.” In Litwin’s words, the sukkah “is a symbol of reunion of man with family and God. It is a structure that functions as a connecting device, a space for dialogue and inspiration.”
Personally, I still favor my father’s time-tested design, which I have re-executed myself for most of the past 10 years. It’s not as mystical as the SukkahSoul, as sophisticated as the work on view at Makor or as beautiful as the constructions in Sarfati’s book, but it’s heymish — a Yiddish word that literally means “homelike.” And isn’t that what a sukkah is supposed to be — a temporary home?