The sukkah of my youth was an elegantly makeshift affair. A square-shaped structure of wired-together bamboo splits from Sears Roebuck and Co. attached to a wooden frame, it was a construct created by my father while living in Alexandria, Virginia.
We were still using it during my Long Island, New York childhood, and while I loved it and the plastic grapes and cherries that hung from the roof, I greatly admired the sukkah of my parents’ friends, who went for a Laurence of Arabia look, a romantic canvas tent that seemed massive to me, lined with carpets and embroidered pillows.
Both were ultimately temporary in nature, as the sukkah is meant to be, constructed quickly and for a fleeting period of time. My childhood sukkah was used just for meals, given that late September or early October weather in the American Northeast is usually too cold for outdoor slumber. Here, we have friends who literally live in their sukkah for the duration of the holiday, and even we sometimes sleep in our sukkah, as one can comfortably do in the often hot Israeli fall.
It’s outdoor living, taking advantage of a form of architecture that protects one from the elements while still offering a direct connection to the world of nature.
That’s the idea of the sukkah, says Dr. Shulamit Laderman, who lectures about Jewish art at Bar-Ilan University and the Schechter Institute.
“It’s sacred architecture and it’s very minimalistic, it’s meant to make one feel that one is outside with very few barriers from nature, from God’s world,” said Laderman.
Laderman recently hosted a conference on the subject of the sukkah, sacred architecture and sacred art in general at Bar-Ilan University. Comparing the sukkot of medieval days with those of modern times, Laderman commented that we don’t really know what was meant with regard to the sukkah’s construction, because the bible never specified anything; it was the rabbis who created the parameters of three walls and see-the-stars-through-the-schach-roof.
Schach — the natural foliage ceiling of the sukkah — “is what’s important, and the walls can be very minimalistic,” she said. “The idea was to leave areas open so that you’re really outside. Foliage is very important, but it can’t be connected to the ground and you need to be able to see the stars.”
Seeking a model of what the sukkah is supposed to look like, Laderman went back to medieval machzorim – high holiday prayer books — from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries that are illuminated with etchings. The piyyutim, or poems recited on the holidays, described the sukkah, which was seen as a tabernacle or a temple, and emphasized the importance of saying a blessing every time one walked into it.
The concept of a sukkah as a sacred structure is evident in some of the antique sukkot rescued and reconstructed at the Israel Museum. Museum director James Snyder always mentions the recently restored Fischach Sukkah as a favorite exhibit of his; a wooden sukkah, it was rescued from Fischach in southern Germany by the family prior to World War II. The sturdy wooden walls are painted in Naive style with scenes from the village, including the local baron setting out to hunt, as well as Jerusalem and the Western Wall. Painted panels left from a Copenhagen sukkah tell biblical stories, while a child’s paper model sukkah from Germany also shows a more structured hut, down to the flower planters out front.
“The materials of the sukkah were different, depending on the cultural influences of the region,” explained Rachel Sarfati, curator of the Jewish art and life department at the Israel Museum. “The climate was critical; in Europe it rained and in Eastern countries it was still hot. So in the east they had more provisional tents hung on simple frames, while in Europe the idea was to have simple huts, sometimes even constructed on the roof of the house — so as to attract less attention from the non-Jewish neighbors — but with richly decorated panels inside.”
Nowadays, the average Israeli sukkah is made of thin, white cloth, sometimes printed with blessings and images of pomegranates and dates, olive branches and figs, hung on white metal frames. There are other types out there — ours, for example, was purchased from a former Binghamton, New York family and is hung with heavier, dark blue cloth walls — but sukkah architecture is altogether more cookie cutter these days.
That said, there’s still what to see on the local sukkah circuit. You can take a sukkah hop around town, or head to Netanya’s Ir Yamim mall, where there is a sukkah made of live butterflies (October 2-5, 11 am – 2 pm and 4 pm – 7 pm). At the Israel Museum, Beit Avi Chai is co-hosting an exhibition of sukkah models submitted for the Sukkot Speak contest (through Sunday, October 14), as well as artist-led workshops on building individual model sukkot and a workshop on making sukkot out of recycled book bindings (Sunday – Tuesday, October 2-4).