Construction Judaism: An age-old festival

The most interesting succot in ancient times were those erected on the backs of camels and elephants.

311_children sukkot (photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen.)
311_children sukkot
(photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen.)
The 1920s was a time of growth in Jewish art, partly because of the development of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. One of the leading artists and teachers at the school, Ze’ev Raban, was asked to do a series of drawings depicting the holidays as observed by the children in Palestine during the British Mandate.
A Hebraist, Levin Kipnis, was asked to compose verses for children to accompany the drawings. The combination of the two turned into the lovely little book, now a classic, entitled Hageinu – Sefer Temunot (Our Holidays – a Book of Pictures).
An instant hit when it appeared in 1928, the book is considered to contain the most important depiction of the children of Eretz Yisrael observing the holidays throughout the calendar year in that decade. The children in Raban’s work are not Western or east European and not American; they are the newborn youth in their homeland.
In the catalogue of an exhibition of Raban’s works, the following was written: “Raban easily navigated a wealth of aesthetic sources and mediums, borrowing and combining ideas from the East and West, fine arts and crafts from past and present. His works blended European neoclassicism, Symbolist art and Art Nouveau with oriental forms and techniques to form a distinctive visual lexicon.”
When we think about our perception of what the Palestinian Jews were like in Jerusalem in the first decade of the Mandate, we understand what a great gift Raban gave us. He drew in a variety of media not just in books, but the only time he captured all of the holidays is in Hageinu.
Presented here is the Succot illustration which contains within it people young and old, buildings and the texture of the city. The wooden succa on the ground has a Middle Eastern elder seated as the door stands open. The children, however, represent a blend of East and West in their garments. The young boy proudly holds the lulav and etrog, the produce of the Holy Land once more renewed. Raban has also drawn succot hanging on the walls, which we know from our present experience of Jerusalem that they are placed on balconies of various sizes. In the background, barely visible, is Migdal David (the Tower of David), that eternal symbol of the city.
The drawing of Simhat Torah captures the joy of the festival in which the men and the children combine together in one of the lovely synagogues of Jerusalem. The men are wearing colorful kittels and they carry the Sifrei Torah with much love. The boys and girls are waving their flags topped by apples and candles. Raban has portrayed the culmination of Succot in the celebration in which the Torah is the central figure.
We cross the ocean and pass over World War II to find a succa in the western part of the United States.
A resident of Jerusalem for the last decade, Rabbi Stuart Geller is a native of Denver Colorado where his grandparents were pioneer Jewish settlers in the early 20th century. When Geller attended the University of Colorado 1960-1964, the Hillel Foundation on campus bought a garage and transformed it into the Hillel House.
Because of the weather, Rabbi Milton Elefant, the Hillel director, had a piece of roof of the former garage structure cut away. Then he had that piece bolted on so it could slide and be totally open when the succa was in use. Most people believe that was one of the first succot in Boulder, Colorado where the university is located.
Arriving at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in September 1965 as the new Jewish chaplain, I became a succa designer myself. There, the Quartermaster Corps required me to submit a very detailed work order for “the construction of my temporary Jewish annex,” as it was delineated in military jargon.
Since there were several hundred Jewish men, women and children who would use the succa, including the post commander – a two-star general who was the honored guest each year – the non-Jewish soldiers sent to erect “the Jewish annex” was ordered to make sure that no expense was spared.
Once the succa structure was completed, the women and children of the post plus the Jewish families from Lawton, Oklahoma next door did a wonderful job of decorating so that the splendor of the holiday could be felt in Fort Sill. In addition to the Jewish individuals, military and civilian, who used the succa, we had a number of visitors.
On two evenings during succot, a message went out to the Christian chaplains and their assistants to be our guests in the succa. It would have been too difficult to invite all 60,000 Christian soldiers on post.
Fort Sill was adjacent to a Native American reservation and a Native American Boarding School, both funded by the US government. At least 150 Native American teenagers accepted our invitation and looked with wonder at the succa.
The rabbis in the Talmud discussed the succa in detail. A succa of more than about 12 meters in height was declared to be invalid, though Rabbi Judah’s minority opinion noted that even such a high structure was permissible.
Jewish law indicates that you can build one succa on top of another. However, only the upper one was legal for use. Furthermore, the succa had to be covered with enough branches or foliage so that the succa would have more shade than sun.
The most interesting succot in ancient times were those erected on the backs of camels and elephants.
The IDF matches that today with the succot built on open army trucks.They are mobile, and like the ancient beastback succot, can be sent to the most isolated bases where soldiers are stationed. In the last 25 years, Chabad has developed its “sukkah mobiles” which operate in both civilian and military neighborhoods.
Once the succa interest began to flourish, numerous companies sprung up, marketing succot for easy building.
Most Jewish statisticians now believe that annually there are more succot than ever before. What is most heartening is that the building of succot is a family project. Herman Wouk, the noted author, caught that spirit when he described succabuilding as “construction Judaism for parents and children.”