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Jerusalem’s Top Hotels Think Big as Sukkot Approaches

Forget the little hut in the backyard. These grand sukkahs combine luxury and design with halachic detail.

Sara Toth Stub
October 14, 2016
Waldorf Astoria Photos/Easy Perry
Waldorf Astoria Photos/Easy Perry
Waldorf Astoria Photos/Easy Perry
Waldorf Astoria Photos/Easy Perry

Noa Kirshberg has been thinking about Sukkot since long before Rosh Hashanah. In fact, she has been thinking for months about this biblically prescribed Festival of Tabernacles, which Jews mark by building huts in which they eat, and sometimes even sleep, for the week of Sukkot.

The practice comes from the Book of Leviticus, which declares that “all citizens of Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” According to the Talmud, a sukkah is meant to be temporary and can be made out of just about anything, anywhere, even atop a camel.

But these booths are no simple matter for Kirshberg, the design manager who is overseeing the construction of the sukkahs in several hotels, museums, and private residences in Jerusalem. “The sukkahs are becoming more high-end,” said Kirshberg. She’s the design manager at Studio Ya Ya, which has been designing sukkahs in Jerusalem for more than 20 years. “Every year we see that the hotels want to make their sukkahs more impressive, more upscale—it’s become like a competition.”

As the city has seen an influx of new luxury hotels and residences in recent years, aesthetic standards are rising for these biblical huts. And more and more, the sukkahs are reflecting current trends in interior decorating and fashion rather than sticking strictly with traditional Judaica-inspired themes centered around plants and fruits mentioned in the Bible, or depictions of the yearned-for temple in Jerusalem. Several hotels have also begun offering private, custom-designed sukkahs on the balconies of guests’ rooms, or for the residents of the luxury apartment complexes that have become a standard addition to many of the city’s poshest hotels.

“The hotels really know what they are doing,” said Arie Sommer, director general of the Jerusalem Hotel Association. “They celebrate the holidays in the way that they feel suits their guests, so if their guests want fancy, the sukkahs will be fancy.” Sommer said the rising standards for hotels’ sukkahs are in line with the emerging image of Jerusalem as a luxury destination, and one that values art as well as religion, as evidenced by the recent increased number of music and other festivals in the city in recent years.

“There is a changing image of Jerusalem,” Sommer said.

The Waldorf Astoria, which opened three years ago just blocks from the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, was built especially to accommodate a large sukkah inside its lobby. The rest of the year, the lobby is open and airy, filled with the sounds of flowing water from a central fountain surrounded by tropical anthurium flowers and the murmur of meetings. But when the time comes, the glass ceiling of the hotel’s four-story atrium lobby will slide open and the lobby will be covered with bamboo, making the entire area into a sukkah—said to be the largest indoor in the world—that meets the strict halachic standards of the Waldorf’s supervising rabbi. The hotel’s regular dining room will be closed, and the tables moved to the lobby, so guests can fulfill the religious obligation of eating in a sukkah. It will seat 250 people.

“It has all the comforts of an indoor dining room but still with direct exposure to the stars and heavens as mandated by halacha,” said the hotel’s general manager, Guy Klaiman.

Just after Rosh Hashanah, a team of dozens of carpenters, florists, and designers began building this and three other sukkahs: one in the hotel’s side yard, one in its new rooftop restaurant, and one on the roof of the adjacent Waldorf Astoria Residences.

“The sukkot will be much more modern this year, using lots of textiles, which are now trendy in interior design,” said Kirshberg, as she sat in the lobby cafe with her laptop open to samples of fabrics, colors, and decorations that will fill the sukkah. Rather than the green grape vines that covered the sukkah last year, bright blue and gold swaths of patterned fabric will adorn this year’s sukkah. The mechitza, creating a separate space in the sukkah for men who do not want to sit with women, will be a bookshelf, filled with vases of flowers, Kirshberg said, rather than the standard white screen of years past.

Citrons will be plentiful in the flower arrangements, but rather than the perfect smooth, oval-shaped ones known as etrogs, which are central to Sukkot, they will be the Asian Buddha’s Hand variety of the fruits, which grow into segmented, fingerlike sections. Pomegranates, another traditional Sukkot motif, will be abundant as well, but they will be gold. These touches will add enough tradition to satisfy more conservative guests but push the sukkah into the realm of modern design.

“We want to make sure everyone is happy, so it’s a balancing game between traditional and modern that we need to play,” Kirshberg said.

She also needs to comply with the halachic details that make a sukkah kosher, such as ensuring decorations do not cover too much of the roof. The supervising rabbis will check everything with tape measures to make sure it complies with standards set out in the Talmud and other halachic sources.

“I grew up secular, so we always just strung stuff up all over the sukkah without thinking about it,” Kirshberg said. “But now the rabbis check everything, they take photos, they measure. So this is another thing we need to balance.”

The Waldorf is not alone in the attention it pays to its sukkahs; other Jerusalem hotels also spend months planning and weeks building theirs. This year, event designer Sarit Bustan is designing three public sukkahs at the Inbal Hotel, also near Jerusalem’s Old City. The sukkahs will also feature bright colors and lots of small lights, said Bustan: “That will give it something modern,” she said. “We are really looking to provide an experience, a feeling that makes you want to stay in the sukkah and not be in any other place.”

Even the King David, long seen as the most traditional of Jerusalem’s upmarket hotels, is adding modern touches to its sukkah design, including colorful paper flowers and clashing textiles.

“It has to be different every year,” said Jeremy Sheldon, the King David’s guest-relations manager. “Sukkot is peak time for the hotels, so we really have to invest in it so our guests will keep coming back to our hotel.”

Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.