The Sala-Manca Group, a collective of Jerusalem-based artists, has brought a new universal meaning to an old Jewish tradition: the sukka.Their Absentee Landscapes project, which ran until July 19, invited people to think about how their own histories have been formed out of temporality, fragility and migration.The project began in 2014 when Lea Mauas and Diego Rotman, the directors of the Sala-Manca Group, began creating a sukka for Beit Hansen, a home for various art groups in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbiyeh.
“We decided to bring a refugee hut here to create a temporary dwelling, something that is fragile and represents wandering,” said Rotman.The nomads they chose to represent are the Jahalin, a Beduin tribe that lives in the Jordan Valley near Ma’aleh Adumim. For an art project focusing on the ideas of temporality and instability, the Jahalin are the perfect pick.“They have a very specific situation because they aren’t Palestinian, they’re caught in the middle of this struggle without any land,” Rotman said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”The Sala-Manca Group paid a Jahalin family NIS 6,000 for its hut, and secretly tore it down and transported the materials back to Jerusalem in the middle of the night.“It wasn’t illegal, but we did smuggle a little bit because we didn’t know if they would stop us or what would happen,” said Rotman with a smile.With the money, the family was able to build a new hut with better materials, although it had to build in the middle of the night to avoid Israeli surveillance, since the state considers these buildings unauthorized and illegal.Back at Beit Hansen, the Sala-Manca Group created an almost identical hut, with a few changes. Their hut was a kosher sukka, with s’chach of large leaves. Soon after the building was finished, the group approached the Israel Museum, which decided to purchase and display it.Half of the proceeds were sent back to this Beduin family, which uses the money to receive tourist groups and tell its story.The Sala-Manca Group is still connected with this family and visits to do art workshops and other projects. The sukka has been dismantled and waits in storage at the Israel Museum, but continues to play an influential role in the group and marks just the beginning of its work with the temporary structure.“When we brought the sukka to the museum, we felt we had to bring something out. We can’t bring something into the museum that is alive without taking something out and giving it life,” said Rotman.This gave them the idea to create a replica of a sukka kept in the museum, first built and painted in 1850 in Fischach, a small town in Germany, for the Deller family. In 1937 the sukka was smuggled out of Germany to Israel by Bracha Frenkel, a brave woman escaping the Nazi regime with her five children.According to Rotman, there are only one or two painted sukkot like this in the world, and Jews around Germany visited the Deller family sukka every year before it was smuggled to Israel.Painted on the walls of the sukka is the Jewish street in Fischach and a depiction of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But as the Sala-Manca Group began its project, it discovered that the entire meaning of the Deller sukka had changed.“We didn’t think about the fact that everything has changed since it was made. Fischach represented this place where they live, where their efforts are.And Jerusalem is your dreams, the place you want to go to and connect to,” said Rotman. Mauas, Rotman’s wife, added, “But we are here in Jerusalem. It doesn’t have that same special thing, because it’s the place of our everyday lives. Instead, we were curious about this quiet pastoral village and looked to the village.”The artists did not just look to Fischach, but went there to connect with the place they were representing in their sukka. While touring, they realized that Fischach was not the same place it was when first painted, and changes would be necessary. The replica’s differences add new life and introspection to the sukka.In the original, Mr. Deller is standing in the doorway of his home. In their copy, Mauas and Rotman decided instead to write on the side of the house the names of the two families that currently live there: the Gross family and the Ozdel family. This decision brings modernity to the painting and invites connection between people from different backgrounds.“The Ozdels are a Turkish family. This represents migration and people mixing ethnicities,” says Mauas. “And in 1850 when the sukka was painted, the Ottomans were here in Israel. Now, the sukka is in Israel and the Turkish are in the Deller house.”When they visited Fischach, Mauas and Rotman also discovered a church in the background behind the Deller house, and discovered it was originally included and later painted over. Mauas and Rotman think that the family must have become more Orthodox and chose to erase it. However, the Sala-Manca Group added it to their replica.“This Fischach [in our sukka] is up to date and yet closer to the original than the one in the museum,” said Mauas.On the side of the community synagogue, they painted the name of the dentist who now owns the building. Dr.Dominikus Wunderer has a Magen David hanging on one wall to show the history of the building, and by adding his name to their painting the Sala-Manca Group artists are doing the same in their sukka. For their final change, they replaced the dog originally painted in the corner and added their own dog, which had died, to make the painting personal and keep their dog present with them always. These small additions and updates, according to Mauas and Rotman, represent the connections that instability and movement can create.“It’s a lot about going back to look at history and the Diaspora,” said Mauas. “Even when we’re in Jerusalem, we’re still longing for the idea of Jerusalem.”The connections are endless: the artist who painted the replica discovered her grandfather went to the Deller sukka every year. Deller family members came to the opening of the exhibition, and relatives who did not know each other met at the gallery.The Sala-Manca Group has even been able to connect the story of the Jahalin people to the Deller sukka. According to Mauas, when Frenkel tried to bring the sukka pieces out of Germany, a Nazi official asked her why she was taking so much wood, and she said she needed it because she was going to live in the desert.“We want to connect the situation of refugees today to our history of being refugees,” said Rotman.“It’s a way to tell the story of the Jewish people and the Jahalin Beduin tribe not far from here.”Some visitors to the exhibit stayed to watch videos about the Jahalin, and they were encouraged to reflect on the situation and take a proactive role. Others were then interested in seeing the original, in light of the replica. Mauas and Rotman hoped that visitors could relate to this feeling of instability and use it to reflect on their own lives.“Its incredible how taking the sukka out of context gave it new life,” said Mauas. “People are now researching their own family histories and sukkot.”