Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sukkah City

Earlier this week, an old friend and I wandered through Union Square taking in this year's finalists in the Sukkah City architectural competition. For those of you not "in the know," a sukkah is a temporary structure built for the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert following their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

There are an elaborate set of talmudic rules in constructing a sukkah. For example, the roof must be made using the leaves or branches of a tree or plant and be sufficiently permeable so that one can see the stars at night. Also, on the stranger end of the spectrum, a whale or living elephant may be used to make the walls. (I laugh, but I've been told it's not much different from the City's Building Code.)

There's been some debate about how kosher this year's finalists actually are, but it's fascinating how much they varied in building materials and design. My favorite, and incidentally the winner of the competition, was "Fractured Bubble" by Queens-based designers Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan. This sukkah was fashioned from phragmites (an invasive marsh grass) and looked like a cross between a Pieter Bruegel painting and, as my friend put it, a really bad hair day.

What I like about the tradition of building sukkahs is the way it acknowledges how we can be both dependent on wilderness and at its mercy. Forty years in the desert doesn't sound like a party, but the Israelites worked with what they had and muddled through with a little help from upstairs (if you go in for that).

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