Visitors to last week’s “Sukkah City” in Union Square tended to ask two questions.
First: “Are these sukkahs really kosher?” Second: “Why couldn’t they stay up throughout the holiday?”
Under the rules of the design competition — which attracted architects who re-envisioned the ritual booth in imaginative and modernist ways — only the “People’s Choice Sukkah,” selected by popular vote, was allowed to remain in the park for the week-long festival of Sukkot. That was “Fractured Bubble,” by Long Island City’s Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan.
There were two other options, though, for those who wanted to extend their “Sukkah City” experience a little longer. The Yeshiva University Museum and the Center for Jewish History, just a few blocks from Union Square, hosted two other finalists through the holiday: Volkan Alkanoglu’s “Star Cocoon” and SO-IL’s “In Tension.” The JCC in Manhattan has another finalist, “Single Thread,” by Matter Practice in Brooklyn, on display.
(And for those who missed it entirely, “Sukkah City” organizer Roger Bennett, who heads the forward-thinking nonprofit Reboot, hopes to hold the event again next year, on a national level. “Our goal is to fan it out across the nation next year to 15 cities,” he told JTA.)
The YU Museum also presented a panel discussion Monday night, during the holiday’s intermediate days, or Chol HaMoed, “Judaism and Sacred Space: Meditations on Sukkah City.”
Visiting the museum on that rainy evening did provide a more meditative experience for enjoying the sukkahs. The structures loomed large, unobstructed by throngs of people and camera flashes.
“In Tension,” which may have seemed plain in the park compared to its flashier counterparts, now stood out in all its stark beauty. And “Star Cocoon,” a shell-shaped structure of bent cane tubes and rattan, looked like a treasure from a distant shore — which it is, in a way, since the designer is based in Los Angeles.
Some of the audience members had learned about the panel discussion while visiting “Sukkah City,” including Anne Rose, a Gramercy Park social worker.
Rose, 64, is not Jewish, but visited “Sukkah City” in an effort to engage with her Jewish patients’ interests. She loved the exhibition.
“I love the openness and the art available to everyone, and the different concepts of how to use these little structures,” she said.
“Some seemed very practical, some seemed sort of ethereal.”
One of the panelists, Yeshiva University anthropology professor Jill Katz, also focused on the populism of the sukkah tradition.
Explaining that a sukkah does fall into the category of “sacred space,” she said it also presents a unique message.
“The sukkah is not a place that is reserved for the elite among us, or the religious functionaries among us,” Katz explained.
“It is a place for everyone. It’s meant to be accessible to people.”
Participants discussed not only the ancient traditions of Sukkot, but also the modern experience of visiting “Sukkah City.”
“What art does is give us new eyes,” said the panel’s moderator, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.
Within a religious context, he said, “So much is about routine, regularity, consistency. Sometimes with routine comes a sense of blasé, of ‘We’ve done it before.’”
At “Sukkah City,” he said, “Through the experimentation that the various architects had done — the way they flirted with the materials, flirted with the rules, flirted with the laws, with the experience of seeing or being in a sukkah — I think, for the most part, it made people who saw the exhibits at ‘Sukkah City’ think about sukkah differently.”
One audience member, “Harper’s Magazine” writer Theodore Ross, wondered if there were other forms of Jewish practice or ritual that might lend themselves to artistic treatments.
“One can picture making a whole new type of art out of, say, the baking of challah,” answered panelist Lawrence H. Schiffman, who chairs New York University’s Judaic studies department.
“But the problem is, can we successfully imagine, and actually see happen, art which would represent some of the less concrete aspects of the Jewish tradition?”
Fellow panelist, Yeshiva University professor Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, said we can learn a lot from the individualism of tie-dyed tzitzit and creative Chanukah menorahs and mezuzah holders.
“We are much more personally invested in the lives that we lead, on all levels — including in our religious lives,” he said.
“I think what we’re seeing in the plethora of individualistic expressions of religious identity and performance, is this notion of trying to carve out a place for myself. And I think that is an incredibly precious, special, and wonderful thing.”