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Rebooth

Sukkah City, in New York’s Union Square, was my attempt to bring Sukkot the attention it deserves

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New Yorkers at Sukkah City. (Courtesy Roger Bennett)

In 1995, historian Jonathan Sarna published an essay titled “A Great Awakening,” in which he told the story of a group of youngsters calling themselves the Young Men’s Hebrew Association who, in the 1870s, single-handedly revived a then-obscure festival called “Chanucka.” All it took was the organization of a military-style pageant to, in their words, “rescue this national festival from the obscurity into which it seemed to be rapidly falling.”

This essay has motivated nearly all of my work, though perhaps nothing as much as my most recent project: Sukkah City, an international design competition organized with my friend Joshua Foer, based on the primitive, biblical construction of the sukkah. If the members of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association could turn the minor holiday of Hanukkah into a major annual festival, maybe could we reverse the process and restore Sukkot—a ritual once central to the Jewish year—to its rightful pedestal.

***

The Sukkah City crew entered in Union Square as interlopers: a phalanx of nervous architects and engineers accompanying a dozen hulking sukkahs, partially built and arriving on a procession of flatbed trucks. At dusk on the evening of September 18, our convoy had left from a holding site in Brooklyn. We didn’t reach Union Square until downtown was dark.

Our mood had been so calm and optimistic back in the workshop. Over the previous 10 days, teams of architects had arrived from France, England, Japan, and Germany. Not just Jews, but Catholics, Muslims, and Bahai, all unexpectedly joined by a newly discovered yet nonetheless passionate fascination with sukkahs. They had dropped everything to re-locate to New York City, source materials, and coax carpenters, fabricators, and engineers to lend a shoulder and make their visions real.

Three days before the competition, the teams’ arsenals of raw materials—still at the studio in Gowanus—sufficiently resembled sukkahs for us to throw a preview party in Brooklyn. But just as we arrived at the space, a storm of biblical proportions tore through Queens and Brooklyn, rattling down the street in front of our studio, leaving it littered with shattered tree branches. I watched with fear, aware that an encore of this weather in Union Square would immediately tear apart our sukkahs. But many of the architects were delighted, seeing it as some kind of a heavenly sign that everything would be fine, since, after all, God had made schach—the foliage that traditionally covers a sukkah roof—rain from the sky.

Before we knew it, we were on that ride, and then standing at the precipice of our project: Union Square, on a Saturday night.

The plaza crackled with merriment as thousands of New Yorkers and tourists tangled around buskers, jugglers, chess hustlers, and an entire 10-piece New Orleans brass band. A dozen skaters and stunt bikers propelled themselves off the steps below the plaza, careening at speed, buzzing passers-by. The folly of our mission became instantly clear: How were we going to build these sukkahs amidst this havoc, under cover of darkness, in front of a Whole Foods and a Filene’s Basement?

Two enormous banks of floodlights were laboriously wheeled into position. With a flick of a switch, their beam turned night into day (and caused half of the plaza dwellers to scatter instantly away in search of darkness). The sukkah builders seized their chance, scurrying to their assigned positions with drills and hammers at the ready. The build-out began.

Union Square was transformed into a construction site. The sounds of buzzsaws, shredders, and power drills were pierced only by the scream of a forklift backing up—none of which, of course, kept inquisitive New Yorkers from risking life and limb to figure out what was going on, pressing eagerly past the danger signs for a peek. At 4 a.m., we realized just how fast and far word had spread: A gaggle of frat boys stormed the plaza, breathless: Where, they demanded, were the “hookers” they had heard rumor of in Union Square?

By 6:30 a.m., the last of the sukkahs was complete. The architects dragged themselves off to bed. The plaza was eerily silent. I was left almost alone at dawn in Union Square, with only the fantastical structures for company.

Sukkah City

Photocollage of Sukkah City
Nephi Niven

The visitors came in droves. First the dog-walkers, followed by young stroller-pushing dads foraging for early cups of coffee. Teams of architectural photographers silently clustered around the exhibits, clicking away, eager to finish their work before the crowds emerged. And then, at 10 a.m., as if from central casting, a crushing mass of New Yorkers descended on the plaza.

A basketball team from the Bronx clustered in a pack. Sailors paraded past. Girlfriends posed daintily in front of a sukkah as their boyfriends snapped away with their cellphones. Elderly couples strolled hand in hand. Entire Orthodox congregations snaked behind as their rabbinical leaders examined the halakhic qualities of each building. By lunchtime, I had heard more than one group of homeless men debating the merits and demerits of the different approaches to schach.

The waves of viewers were relentless, and each brought with it its own set of characters. When night returned, the crowd became younger—the party kids, drinkers, BMX-ers and skaters. At 4 a.m., the square was packed with a mellow crowd for whom the sukkahs were akin to some epic HBO original programming they remained glued to for an hour at a time. By Day 2, our architects had been fairly battered by crowds’ eager, repetitive questions:

  • How many shims were in the Shim City sukkah? (Over 10,000.)
  • Was Single Thread really made out of single thread of wire? (Yes.)
  • Was Log really kosher (Yes, according to our Orthodox engineer)

Every time I saw a tourist snap a photo, each moment our Twitter count trended upward or people asked us where the nearest hardware store was located so they could go and build a sukkah of their very own, I thought of Sarna’s essay and the brilliance of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association who had the smarts to transform a festival with a succinct performance on a single evening.

At 5 p.m. on September 20, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived to present the People’s Choice award to the winner. As he opened the envelope and announced “Fractured Bubble,” a scream emerged from one corner of the plaza. The mothers of the two winning architects had been unable to contain themselves, and—as we learned that moment—there are few sounds more joyous than that of a proud Jewish mother and a proud Bahai mother celebrating in unison.

Roger Bennett is the co-founder of Reboot, Sukkah City, and the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation.

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shualah elisheva says:

and we’re glad you put in all of the effort. “we” meaning jews from texas, where we might not have a union square, but we certainly have the internet. you inspired a gaggle of my sophomores to try their hands at designing modern, halachic sukkahs, and i thank you for it.

baruch frydman-kohl says:

One of the most exciting and creative celebrations of Sukkot recently took place in public space in New York City. For a short period of time, the low-tech sukkah became high design. Sukkah City was an exhibit of twelve architecturally avant-garde sukkot, selected in a juried competition from over 600 entries, one of which (a taxi cab sukkah) was submitted by a Torontonian, Nicolas Koff. SukkahCity represents a new way to conceptualize an ancient tradition.
Next year, Sukkah City will expand to locations all around the world. I propose that Toronto construct a partnership between the Koffler Centre, OCAD, the Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design of the University of Toronto, the Board of Rabbis and our many creative Canadian architects, so that we will become part of Sukkah City 2011. We could erect the sukkot in Nathan Phillips Square, named for the first Jewish mayor of Toronto.

Great job. I loved seeing the pictures online.

Hear, hear, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl. We’re ready for it.

Wow! So inspiring! My non-traditional Jewish family has been building our sukkah every year (in California and now Tucson) for the past twenty years, trying to inspire our friends to do the same. This is a Jewish holiday that really needs reviving, I totally agree. Our sukkah has a traditional wood frame from the sukkah project out of North Carolina, but the sides we made ourselves out of colorful ripstop nylon with pieced decorations (like a quilt) and netting for windows. (I hope the windows are kosher) We purposefully planted palm trees so that we can trim them every fall and use them for our roof. Now I’m dying to try some new designs.

vicki karno says:

During my visit to NY this week I had planned to see the sukkahs on display.
Very disappointed to see only one example at Center for Architecture. I though from the articles in NY Times and NY Magazine, that there would be more sukkahs on display.

antonio says:

vicki, i think you mistimed your trip… they were in union square en masse in all their glory. check out http://www.sukkahcity.com for the dates and you can see what you missed. it was an only in new york bit of magic. one of the broadest definitions of jewish community i have ever seen, and all the more thrilling for it.

Sukkahs have no place in public spaces.

If you’re so happy about the Sukkahs on Union Square… then how about a life-sized nativity scene for Christmas, and a huge Crucifix for Easter???

Religion should be private.

Thanks for contributing an interesting point, Rachel.

While I was thrilled to see the photos of the sukkot in Union Square (and look forward to Reboot bringing Sukkah City to San Francisco next year), it never crossed my mind that the display could be deemed problematic (though it isn’t illegal)…yet I cringe at every nativity scene I see on court house lawns or public squares. Thanks for pointing out my hypocrisy; I have to ruminate on this one.

Chabad have sukkahs all over New York City. Including one in union square right now. one in bryant park too. have done for years in the same way as Christmas trees are placed in almost every city. this thing was the most engaging, open, throughtful, creative enterprise i have seen.

Kind of funny – what rock in NY have you been hiding under? Sukkahs are all over the place and the holiday receives a great deal of attention – perhaps you weren’t paying attention until now???

Roger, you mentsch above minutia. thank you for this lovely lovely manifesto. May your mother and ancestral butchers yelp with joy for your sacred madness always, always. mazeltov from (the other) Zion.

vicki karno says:

Perhaps next year you could publish a list of locations of public sukkahs like they do in New Orleans for St. Joseph’s Day Alters.

That is just so awesome!

Atara says:

I was very excited to visit Sukkah City, and once I got there, i was truly inspired by the number of people who actually ventured specifically to Union Square to see the Sukkot! I heard numerous debates about the merits of each Sukkah (halachically, or otherwise) and the number of emails I received about it from friends during the event just echoed the excitement I felt on the plaza. Sukkot is such a unique (and I find, appealing) holiday, I was so happy to see such a creative take on both the physical nature of the Sukkah, and a Jewish educational opportunity. I truly commend those who conceived of this idea, and implemented it.

Goadad says:

This could go viral. Miami U – Ohio architecture and interior design students were given the assignment to build scale model sukkot based on Sukkah City’s design criteria. Some wonderful model sukkot were built.
Yasher Koach

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Rebooth

Sukkah City, in New York’s Union Square, was my attempt to bring Sukkot the attention it deserves

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