Sukkah In The City
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Sukkah In The City

For two days, Union Square Park was a very hip festival of booths.

Now you see them — now you don’t.

This week, Union Square Park was transformed into “Sukkah City” — where ritual meets spectacle, where ancient tradition meets cutting-edge architecture.

Hundreds of contestants submitted their proposals for a 21st-century sukkah, the temporary hut used during the festival of Sukkot. All entries had to meet the guidelines of Jewish law.

Only 12 versions, out of some 600 entries, made it to the finals, and were put on display for two festive days, in the carnival-esque Union Square.
Mixed in with the sounds from the usual street performers and eccentrics, one could hear the sound of Talmudic debate: Which sukkah was the best of the bunch? And why do some of us eat, sleep and spend time in the hut every year?

Upper East Sider Jerry Mermel, 63, was inspired to give an impromptu dvar Torah as he gazed at “Sukkah of the Signs,” a Ronald Rael/Virginia San Fratello design constructed of cardboard signs made by the homeless.

The Hebrew word for shade, he explained — tzel — is similar to the word for rescue, hatzalah: “The shade of the sukkah is often a path to salvation.”

Jermel Moody, 21, was also transfixed by the “Sukkah of the Signs,” although — like many of the non-Jews who walked through the park — he had no idea what a sukkah was.

A recent transplant from Raleigh, N.C., Moody is now living in Bedford-Stuyvesant and trying to make a living working at Urban Outfitters.
The sukkah, he said, “makes me feel that I should really be more appreciative of what I have. Coming here to New York, thinking I don’t have anything — but there’s a lot of people who don’t have anything, still.”

Asked what the structure was, he answered, “It’s like a house for the homeless.”

While gazing at one transient construction of branches, leaves and plastic, Miriam Rinn couldn’t help but think of the previous week’s storm.

“I wonder if he picked up those branches as a leftover of the tornado,” said Rinn, 64, of Cliffside Park, N.J. “There were so many trees destroyed.”

For others, the sukkah represented a place for families to gather — and many visitors got into the holiday spirit, bringing their own families to Sukkah City.

Mermel brought his son, daughter-in-law, and 11-month-old grandson — all of whom live in the Union Square area. Ariel Kern, a senior at nearby NYU, came with her bubbe, Florette Applebaum.

And Yitzchok Moully, a rabbi and artist from Basking Ridge, N.J., contemplated the sukkot while pushing his young daughter in a stroller.

“Judaism has never been this hip,” said Moully, 32, sporting a bright pink yarmulke. He was drawn to “Fractured Bubble,” a spherical sukkah made of plywood, marsh grass and twine, calling it “very evocative.”

Like many parents at the park, Moully used Sukkah City as a teachable moment for his Hebrew school students.

“The laws that were defined at Sinai on how to build a sukkah are the laws that these artists abided by,” he said.

“Judaism is relevant — and you don’t have to break the rules in order to make it relevant.”

Many passers-by were skeptical about “LOG,” a cedar trunk balanced on glass walls. Again and again, Dani Passow — a Cooper Union graduate and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical student, who vetted the designs for halachic authenticity — explained that there are actually four holes in the log, meaning that one can see the sky through the schach.

It didn’t bother co-designer Kyle May that so many people looked askance at his sukkah.

“I think it’s great,” said May, who is based in the Financial District, explaining that he wanted to see “how far it could push the limits of what this thing it is.

“It was important for us that it was kosher,” he added, speaking for himself and co-designer Scott Abrahams, neither of whom are Jewish.

After a vote conducted in-person and online at New York Magazine’s website, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand to announce the “People’s Choice” winner of Sukkah City.

“I just came here to do a little sukkah-hopping,” quipped the mayor, joined by journalist Joshua Foer and representatives of Reboot, the nonprofit organization that aims to revitalize Jewish culture, which sponsored the event.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with picking the winner,” added Bloomberg, before announcing the champion: “Fractured Bubble,” by Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan.

Joined by their proud mothers, Grosman, who is Jewish, and Bryan, who is not, stepped forward to claim their prize. “Fractured Bubble” will now be on display through the remainder of the weeklong festival of Sukkot.

Like a bubble, Grosman said, the sukkah is “a very temporary, ephemeral thing that shows up. You step inside it with your closest friends and family. Even though you’re inside, you’re engaged with the outside.”

It was, indeed, an apt description of Sukkah City itself.

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