Sukkot as a Model of Public Space Judaism

The holiday of Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, and Jewish families all over the world will be putting up their sukkot (temporary booths) to celebrate the holiday. In New York City, this festival has been taken to new heights by the nonprofit organization Reboot, which has organized a display of a dozen innovate sukkot in Union Square. To read more about this display, called “Sukkah City,” click here.

Sukkot is a holiday that meshes nicely with JOI’s values of Public Space Judaism and bringing Jewish practice into the public sphere. A sukkah can be built almost anywhere, and is by definition temporary and easy to build. And as a result, many different organizations put the principles of Public Space Judaism into practice during Sukkot. Chabad builds sukkot on the backs of flatbed trucks and Home Depot holds sukkah making demonstrations in order to bring the holiday to where Jews are. The “Sukkah City” display is in keeping with this tradition. It is held in one of the busiest public spaces in New York City, enabling thousands of Jews – affiliated and unaffiliated – to interact with the booths as they go about their day.

However, what I find most interesting about the display is that, although all of the sukkot must follow Jewish law in their construction, most of them look much more like works of modernist sculpture than booths for a traditional Jewish harvest festival (to view this year’s submissions, click here). These avant garde sukkot are interesting and engaging because, in the words of event founder Roger Bennet, they “reinvent ritual.” The goal of “Sukkah City” is to take Jewish law and reinterpret it for the modern age, making it engaging and exciting for the broader American audience.

This project is a wonderful example of bringing Judaism “into the marketplace” and making it interesting and exciting for all Americans, regardless of religious affiliation. Many of the architects of the sukkot are not Jewish, but they were excited by the opportunity to build such a creative structure within the tight parameters of Jewish law. This excitement from the non-Jewish community is important, because many unengaged Jews and people connected to Judaism, such as the spouses of Jews, are more engaged by modern art than traditional Jewish harvest festivals, and will connect more to a creative Judaism that speaks to the broader American aesthetic. Re-imaginings of Judaism that are appealing to all Americans have a far greater chance of engaging the unengaged, because these versions of Judaism meet them where they are emotionally and intellectually.

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