Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Navigate to Community section

Building a Time-Traveling Sukkah

A TARDIS sukkah that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside? It’s just what the doctor—Doctor Who, that is—ordered. And it’s a perfect metaphor for Judaism.

Marjorie Ingall
September 24, 2015
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine

We are building a TARDIS sukkah.

You know what a TARDIS is, right? It’s a time-traveling spaceship in the TV show Doctor Who. TARDIS is an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. The Doctor’s TARDIS looks like an early 1960s blue British police box—but not just any blue police box. As the BBC website puts it, its “external dimensions don’t bear very much resemblance to what’s inside. The interior of the TARDIS occupies a separate set of dimensions to the exterior.”

What this means, in practical terms, is that the TARDIS is a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. And that is a perfect metaphor for Jewish identity.

A sukkah is also bigger on the inside. It contains all our history, all our traditions, echoes of all the different countries we’ve lived in and been kicked out of. It’s associated with food, stories, songs, arcane measurements. It’s an exercise in temporary community—kind of like Burning Man—but it’s also a symbol of everlasting community. It’s flimsy and fragile, but in one form or another it’s been around for thousands of years. It contains contradictory, Whitman-esque multitudes.

A sukkah is supposed to symbolize the shelters we squatted in while wandering in the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery in Egypt. But it’s also supposed to represent the huts in the corners of our fields that we slept in while finishing the harvest. One of these metaphors is about being lost and homeless; the other is about having one’s own plot of land. Antithetical, yet somehow complementary.

And a TARDIS works as a metaphor for living a multicultural life. It can go anywhere. Most Jews today live in at least two worlds: one imbued with the culture of the lands they reside in, and one replete with the culture of Jewishness they’ve been immersed in for generations. Our people know from Doctor Who and Maimonides, shakshuka and cholent, Mizrahi pop and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

The world itself often feels more easily traversed than it once did. Ashkenazi Jews seek to appreciate Sephardi culture; white Jews have begun to realize that we’re not a monolith; rabbis are beginning to understand that a Judaism that doesn’t strive to reach all kinds of Jews of all different levels of observance and identification is a sickly sort of Judaism. The Doctor’s TARDIS is rickety—it maintains its form because the mechanics that allow it to shift forms doesn’t necessarily work—but has survived generations of time travel (and the repeated recasting of lead actors). A sukkah, too, is a constant in a shifting world. We often bemoan every shift and worry about our future, but we should remember that transfiguration can be rejuvenating and fun and joyful as well as scary. Travel can be mind-expanding.

My 13-year-old daughter Josie loves Doctor Who. Truthfully, I am indifferent. I vaguely recall watching an early iteration with my dad in the late 1970s, sitting on the arm of the Barcalounger in the den while he enjoyed the show and I understood nothing. Google Image Search tells me we were watching the Fourth Doctor. (The Doctor has gone through many incarnations; his essential soul lives on in different bodies, with different quirks and personalities, even after a critical injury, which, ahem, is also a good metaphor for our religion.) That Doctor’s tenure ran from 1974 to 1981; he was played by actor Tom Baker with a giant Jewfro-esque head of hair and a long knit stripey scarf.

Josie has enjoyed watching the Ninth through Eleventh Doctors, but she is a particular fan of the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant. I asked her why. “David Tennant is frickin’ iconic, is all I can tell you,” she informed me, in the charming manner of the teens of today, and then she shut her bedroom door. (I can tell you that Tennant seems inordinately popular among female fans and could be called the cute Beatle of Time Lords.)

I may not get it, but I am perfectly happy for her to love this show. My husband doesn’t watch it either, but it was his idea to make a TARDIS sukkah. We know Doctor Who is supposed to be smart and geeky; we love our own geeky things (Firefly, Makerfaire, theremins); and we’re happy to encourage our kids’ geekiness. Especially because those kids are girls. While geek culture with its legions of easily threatened and poorly socialized boys isn’t always inclusive of women and girls, it should be; if we ladies have to fight our way in, the way Jews have fought their way in to universities and careers once off-limits to them, well, that’s how it is. (Meanwhile, I hope you parents of boys will teach your sons to be more open to sharing their culture with folks who are not exactly like them.) I want my daughters to know they’re entitled to their nerdy passions. Besides, encouraging pride in offbeat brainy enthusiasms seems a wiser long-term bet than nurturing a preoccupation with looks or popularity.

Geekery should be for everyone. Similarly, it’s a mitzvah to invite others to visit your sukkah. Who knows where such receptiveness and openness could take us? As the experts note, “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and space. … It can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s ‘chameleon circuit.’ TARDISes also possess a degree of sapience (which has been expressed in a variety of ways, ranging from implied machine personality and free will through to the use of a conversant avatar) and provide their users with additional tools and abilities including a telepathically based universal translation system.”

I did not understand that. But again, I’m feeling tingly metaphor feelings. Most of us Jews can blend. We can pass. We can go hither and yon. We have our own kind of telepathy (Jewdar) and a good degree of flexibility and freedom. Life isn’t always predictable, but we’re here for it.

So, hey, we’re gonna build a TARDIS. Our friend Jack, an art director who also designed Josie’s bat mitzvah program, offered to help. We already have a metal sukkah frame, but this year we’re ordering blue plastic sheeting for the walls; Jack will design the police box windows, panels and signage. I’m not quite sure how we’ll handle the roof (tiered, with a light on top), but we’ll figure something out.

We’re not the only ones who think a sukkah can be a lovely representation of something bigger than itself. A few years ago, Sukkah City, an art sukkah competition, took place in Union Square. (There’s a documentary about it.) Different sukkot had different resonances; one was composed of cardboard signs purchased from homeless people; one looked like bridal veil; one was fabricated of seemingly endless whorls of wire with a shower of bright, dried flowers descending from its roof; one looked like a delicate millefeuille made of whisper-thin, humble little plywood scrims. Some were ugly; some were beautiful. They all invited questions and stories. And that’s a wonderful thing for any piece of art, any ritual object, or any holiday to do.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.