Back in your author’s Hebrew school days, Sukkot was a pretty hotly anticipated holiday. Not only did we get a break from classroom work — which is to say, a break from being scolded firmly by ex IDF paratroopers for not picking up Hebrew fast enough — but we got to go out to the parking lot and take in, and enter, the unique-unto-odd structure that gives the holiday its name. It has been awhile since then, and I haven’t been in a sukkah since, but I still remember the weird mystery surrounding the sukkah itself — a flimsy-but-sacred structure that pays tribute to the structures in which our forebears lived during their flight from Egypt. The frame of the sukkah is generally festooned with those waxy, inedible gourds that become popular around Halloween time as ornamental additions to weird centerpieces. I wouldn’t say that it was one of the first real experiences in my life in which I experienced the forcefulness of architecture — it was a hut, with squashes, and I was sadly unable to engage it as anything but that in my tweenage cretinhood. But looking back, yes, there was some of that — a simple space whose significance added up to more than the sum of its parts. Looked at another way — a way I was not capable of as a petulant pre-Bar Mitzvah — the sukkah is a modern appropriation of the most traditional of building forms, festooned not just with summer squash (although, you know, that too) but with the symbolism and semiotic weight of thousands of generations. Given that it’s possible to pile all that significance on a super-flimsy structure in the parking lot of a suburban New Jersey synagogue, you can only imagine just how deep one could get on the fascinating entrants in the Sukkah City design contest, which just announced its dozen finalists. The winning sukkah will be erected in Union Square, where it will presumably impress young people far more than Temple Beth Or’s sukkah did me a couple decades ago.
How deep can one get on these sukkot (it’s also the plural for sukkah, apparently)? Let the Sukkah City website show you how deep. “The sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted. It calls on us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, to reconnect with an agricultural past, and to take a moment to dwell on–and dwell in–impermanence.” Which is true, as far as I remember it, and certainly better sounding than my “it was like a shed, but there were like gourds” bit from the paragraph above. For the uninitiated, the website also lays out just what the entries in the contest needed to have in order to qualify as sukkahs. “Historically, the sukkah’s permanent recurrence is not as a monument, archetype, or typology, but as a set of precise parameters,” the rules read. “The basic constraints seem simple: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic materials through which one can see the stars.” As constraints go, those could prove to be quite constraining. But as the finalists in the contest demonstrate, these next-generation sukkot are widely, wildly open to interpretation.
All 600 entries (from 43 countries) are available for viewing on the Sukkah City site, and New York Magazine offers a slideshow of the dozen dazzling finalists (including Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan’s “Fractured Bubble,” seen above. In piece accompanying the slideshow, Justin Davidson sews up what’s so cool about Sukkah City so efficiently that I’m going to give it its own graf. Here’s Davidson:
“Anointing the winner of Sukkah City is almost superfluous; what matters is that for a short time, one of Manhattan’s few town greens will host a conclave of meaningful structures, created not as curiosities but as rest stops for the soul. This unprecedented event belongs in New York, and not just because it contains the largest Jewish community after Tel Aviv. This is a perpetually provisional city. New Yorkers live in too-small apartments they hope to trade in, cherish buildings that stand only until some developer decides to tear them down, and reform entire neighborhoods that reach a momentary sense of identity before changing again. Temporary, we get.”
All 12 Sukkah City finalists will be on display in Union Square Park on September 19 and 20, with the winner standing until October 2. Judging only by the slideshow, they’ll all be worth checking out and waving a lulav in, at the very least.