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Sukkah City, in New York’s Union Square, was my attempt to bring Sukkot the attention it deserves

Roger Bennett
September 29, 2010
Courtesy Roger Bennett
New Yorkers at Sukkah CityCourtesy Roger Bennett
Courtesy Roger Bennett
New Yorkers at Sukkah CityCourtesy Roger Bennett

In 1995, historian Jonathan Sarna published an essay titled “A Great Awakening,” in which he told the story of a group of youngsters calling themselves the Young Men’s Hebrew Association who, in the 1870s, single-handedly revived a then-obscure festival called “Chanucka.” All it took was the organization of a military-style pageant to, in their words, “rescue this national festival from the obscurity into which it seemed to be rapidly falling.”

This essay has motivated nearly all of my work, though perhaps nothing as much as my most recent project: Sukkah City, an international design competition organized with my friend Joshua Foer, based on the primitive, biblical construction of the sukkah. If the members of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association could turn the minor holiday of Hanukkah into a major annual festival, maybe could we reverse the process and restore Sukkot—a ritual once central to the Jewish year—to its rightful pedestal.

The Sukkah City crew entered in Union Square as interlopers: a phalanx of nervous architects and engineers accompanying a dozen hulking sukkahs, partially built and arriving on a procession of flatbed trucks. At dusk on the evening of September 18, our convoy had left from a holding site in Brooklyn. We didn’t reach Union Square until downtown was dark.

Our mood had been so calm and optimistic back in the workshop. Over the previous 10 days, teams of architects had arrived from France, England, Japan, and Germany. Not just Jews, but Catholics, Muslims, and Bahai, all unexpectedly joined by a newly discovered yet nonetheless passionate fascination with sukkahs. They had dropped everything to re-locate to New York City, source materials, and coax carpenters, fabricators, and engineers to lend a shoulder and make their visions real.

Three days before the competition, the teams’ arsenals of raw materials—still at the studio in Gowanus—sufficiently resembled sukkahs for us to throw a preview party in Brooklyn. But just as we arrived at the space, a storm of biblical proportions tore through Queens and Brooklyn, rattling down the street in front of our studio, leaving it littered with shattered tree branches. I watched with fear, aware that an encore of this weather in Union Square would immediately tear apart our sukkahs. But many of the architects were delighted, seeing it as some kind of a heavenly sign that everything would be fine, since, after all, God had made schach—the foliage that traditionally covers a sukkah roof—rain from the sky.

Before we knew it, we were on that ride, and then standing at the precipice of our project: Union Square, on a Saturday night.

The plaza crackled with merriment as thousands of New Yorkers and tourists tangled around buskers, jugglers, chess hustlers, and an entire 10-piece New Orleans brass band. A dozen skaters and stunt bikers propelled themselves off the steps below the plaza, careening at speed, buzzing passers-by. The folly of our mission became instantly clear: How were we going to build these sukkahs amidst this havoc, under cover of darkness, in front of a Whole Foods and a Filene’s Basement?

Two enormous banks of floodlights were laboriously wheeled into position. With a flick of a switch, their beam turned night into day (and caused half of the plaza dwellers to scatter instantly away in search of darkness). The sukkah builders seized their chance, scurrying to their assigned positions with drills and hammers at the ready. The build-out began.

Union Square was transformed into a construction site. The sounds of buzzsaws, shredders, and power drills were pierced only by the scream of a forklift backing up—none of which, of course, kept inquisitive New Yorkers from risking life and limb to figure out what was going on, pressing eagerly past the danger signs for a peek. At 4 a.m., we realized just how fast and far word had spread: A gaggle of frat boys stormed the plaza, breathless: Where, they demanded, were the “hookers” they had heard rumor of in Union Square?

By 6:30 a.m., the last of the sukkahs was complete. The architects dragged themselves off to bed. The plaza was eerily silent. I was left almost alone at dawn in Union Square, with only the fantastical structures for company.

The visitors came in droves. First the dog-walkers, followed by young stroller-pushing dads foraging for early cups of coffee. Teams of architectural photographers silently clustered around the exhibits, clicking away, eager to finish their work before the crowds emerged. And then, at 10 a.m., as if from central casting, a crushing mass of New Yorkers descended on the plaza.

A basketball team from the Bronx clustered in a pack. Sailors paraded past. Girlfriends posed daintily in front of a sukkah as their boyfriends snapped away with their cellphones. Elderly couples strolled hand in hand. Entire Orthodox congregations snaked behind as their rabbinical leaders examined the halakhic qualities of each building. By lunchtime, I had heard more than one group of homeless men debating the merits and demerits of the different approaches to schach.

The waves of viewers were relentless, and each brought with it its own set of characters. When night returned, the crowd became younger—the party kids, drinkers, BMX-ers and skaters. At 4 a.m., the square was packed with a mellow crowd for whom the sukkahs were akin to some epic HBO original programming they remained glued to for an hour at a time. By Day 2, our architects had been fairly battered by crowds’ eager, repetitive questions:

Every time I saw a tourist snap a photo, each moment our Twitter count trended upward or people asked us where the nearest hardware store was located so they could go and build a sukkah of their very own, I thought of Sarna’s essay and the brilliance of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association who had the smarts to transform a festival with a succinct performance on a single evening.

At 5 p.m. on September 20, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived to present the People’s Choice award to the winner. As he opened the envelope and announced “Fractured Bubble,” a scream emerged from one corner of the plaza. The mothers of the two winning architects had been unable to contain themselves, and—as we learned that moment—there are few sounds more joyous than that of a proud Jewish mother and a proud Bahai mother celebrating in unison.

Roger Bennett is a broadcaster and podcaster, and co-author of The New York Times bestseller Men in Blazers Presents Encyclopedia Blazertannica. Born in Liverpool, England, he now lives in New York.