My only experience of building a sukkah in New York was when I was living in a tiny fifth-floor attic (which my landlord called the “penthouse”) of a prewar brownstone on West 84th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. Sukkot was coming and I decided to construct my sukkah on the black tar rooftop outside my bathroom window.
However, I couldn’t imagine schlepping lumber up the four flights of stairs. So I decided to use light polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, which I carried through the window and assembled diligently with curved joints. By the next morning, the hut had turned into a pile of shiny white rubble. That was the ignominious end of my sukkah-construction career – at least until I got married and moved to Harrisburg a decade later and summoned up the courage to try again.
Because Judaism doesn’t command its adherents to build shrines, the just-concluded holiday of Sukkot is the only time of the year that we create a physical space in — or just outside — our homes for our family to experience the Divine. Yet it is precisely the contrast with the buildings in which we live and worship the rest of the year that makes the fragile, temporary, primitive sukkah so significant.
Most of the time, we surround ourselves with imposing, high-ceilinged structures that employ lavish decorations in an effort to beautify our worship. Can we learn lessons from Sukkot about the kinds of sacred space that we need throughout the year?
If the Babylonian Talmud is to be taken literally, there were already 394 synagogues in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. But the Talmud says surprisingly little about how synagogues should be constructed, other than that they should be the tallest buildings in the city — if a city has roofs higher than the synagogue, they prophesied, it will be destroyed — and have windows that face Jerusalem.
This led to tremendous freedom on the part of architects in their designs for Jewish houses of worship. Beginning in the 19th century, Ashkenazic Jews gravitated toward a Moorish style that harkened back to the Golden Age in Spain; this is the style in which many American synagogues ended up being built, at least until modernist architects like Percival Goodman, who designed more than four dozen synagogues, including Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and Congregation Adath Israel in Riverdale, came along.
In Woody Allen’s 1986 film, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” David (Sam Waterston) takes Holly (Dianne Wiest) and April (Carrie Fisher) on a tour of his favorite buildings in New York; they agree that the Fifth Avenue Synagogue “ruins everything else on the block” with its incongruous cat’s eye windows — little wonder, perhaps, that its exterior ended up, in 2003, standing in as a luxury apartment house in glossy magazine ads for the Infinity Q45 automobile.
Joshua Zinder, an architect in New Jersey whose firm, Landau-Zinder, specializes in designing synagogues, told The Jewish Week that almost every congregation that seeks to build a new home is interested in bringing in millennials. Sukkot, he said, is about a “generation of wanderers” who, like today’s young people, are more transient than their parents’ generation.
But the “connectivity of millennials is not typically formed through shul membership, but through their smart phones and computers. The major challenge of designing for that generation is how to make them feel that they have a home in a religious institution.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld is the president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In an email from Israel, he told The Jewish Week that what defines a sukkah is the schach (covering made of organic materials), which must allow both the sun and rain to enter the shed. “Walls with neither open windows nor swinging doors eventually become prisons for those within, even when they start out thinking of them as protective fortresses. Imagine a community that felt protected and secure enough to allow some empathy with whatever was, for them, outside.”
But for Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who teaches at Hebrew Union College in New York, Sukkot teaches us how to optimize whatever spaces that we use for prayer. Even large spaces become more intimate when worshippers achieve what Hoffman calls “fused focus,” which occurs in such rituals as a baby naming, Havdalah ceremony, or the waving of the lulav. “Even if there is only one lulav and etrog going around the sanctuary,” he observed, “all eyes follow it.” As a result, “the crowd becomes a community.”
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Lancaster, Pa. He writes about culture for the paper.