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The Fall and Rise of the American Sukkah

In the late 19th century, many Jews across the U.S. had left Sukkot behind—until subsequent generations connected to the holiday in new ways

Jenna Weissman Joselit
September 20, 2021
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

It’s getting harder and harder these days to walk down the streets of the urban American landscape without happening upon an outdoor structure housing an eatery of one form or another. Some of these structures are slapdash affairs, held together by spit and polish; others, of a far sturdier caliber, are the handiwork of professional architects. Ranging from weatherized outdoor patios to igloo domes, revamped shipping containers and converted school buses—talk about “food to go”—they also make use of planters and flowers, string lights, plexiglass, striped umbrellas and canopies to make al fresco dining in the age of COVID-19 a pleasant and safe experience.

The names these outdoor facilities bear are as varied as their silhouettes, encompassing shacks, booths, pergolas, patios, cabanas, and cabins. To my mind, the most apt name of them all, bestowed on these new urban amenities by one of my more astute and witty colleagues, is that of a sukkah.

True, not a one conforms to the Halachic definition of the traditional outdoor booth, whose construction demands adherence to a number of age-old regulations regarding both the space itself and the materials used to contain it. But in so many other crucial respects—their improvisatory nature, unexpected presence in the streetscape, and the ways in which they bear witness to vulnerability—these facilities fit the bill and qualify as latter-day sukkahs.

That they also occasion considerable public commentary, from hosannas to hoots, is yet another feature the two have in common. You need only cast your eye on the “letters to the editor” page of any metropolitan newspaper to see how much of a commotion the latest iteration of an outdoor café has unleased. Much the same could be said when, early in the 20th century, the urban sukkah, increasingly visible within Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, was first widely noted and publicized by observers outside of their precincts: “Obtruded themselves on our notice” was how one of their number peevishly put it.

Contemporary eyewitnesses, summoning up all of their descriptive powers and sometimes seeming to compete with one another in seizing on the more outlandish, helter-skelter features of the ritually mandated outdoor booth, made a point of depicting the sukkah as a curiosity, a “queer structure,” a “strange exotic,” of a piece with those who sat inside.

The context that gave rise to these architectural oddities—the holiday of Sukkot, aka the Feast of Tabernacles—was also widely perceived to be an oddity, especially among American Jews of longstanding who, by the 1880s, if not earlier, had dispensed with it altogether. At best, a “faint shadow of the past,” and at worst, “dead” and gone, Sukkot had less and less of a claim on self-consciously modern American Jews of the time.

The hoary agricultural festival of which the outdoor booth, along with the ceremonial presence of an etrog and a lulav, was an integral component, struck increasing numbers of co-religionists as a vestigial occasion, ill-suited to the modern era and far too reminiscent of embarrassing ghetto practices to find a secure footing in the metropolis. “It has slipped out of the consciousness of our people,” glumly noted the American Israelite in September 1880, sounding what would become a standard lament in its pages and those of other American Jewish newspapers.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why. Some of Sukkot’s detractors thought it a “burdensome observance,” especially since the festival came immediately on the heels of the High Holidays. Enough already! Others derided Sukkot as “ridiculous,” insisting that its imperative to cool one’s heels in an uncomfortable outdoor space when not parading about the sanctuary, brandishing a quartet of agricultural products, not only smacked too much of superstition, but also rendered it far too “Oriental” for the rationally minded, well-ordered urban Jews of America. And still others thought that neither the holiday’s rationale nor its rituals had anything to offer them, or, as Rabbi Montague N.A. Cohen of Sacramento, California, acknowledged, there seemed to be “nothing to make it a vital concern for us.”

To make matters worse, where other equally ancient holidays such as Passover and Shavuot lent themselves to rejuvenation, to translation in a modern idiom, acquiring a new lease on life along the way, Sukkot had no such luck. For too many American Jews, it resisted interpretation and remained a dead letter, prompting David Philipson, the influential Cincinnati Reform rabbi, to conclude in 1911 that by then, “people know little or nothing of it.”

While the people had no compunction about bidding Sukkot farewell and removing it from their calendars, Philipson, along with Cohen and a handful of other communal voices, rued the holiday’s erasure and argued strenuously on behalf of its retention. Why should modernity prevail at the expense of tradition? “Why should what is sweet and inspiring in Jewish rite and ceremony turn and fly at the cry of Yankee notions and rapid transit?” they cautioned, harvesting references to two of the perquisites of modern American life. “We need the Succah … To be a sleek cosmopolitan is one thing; to be a national Jew is another.”

How, then, to keep it evergreen and in circulation? For some of its champions like Cohen, recasting the holiday’s “poetry” was one way to go. “The Symbolism of Tabernacles, though Oriental in every respect, can still temper our Occidentalism and suffer some of its sunshine to brighten our lives,” he wrote in his characteristically florid style. No need to think of the holiday in connection exclusively with Palestine or of yesteryear. Since the four species were grown in this country, the “Succah, the frail and temporary hut, is indeed a part of American agricultural life,” the good rabbi pointed out, concluding from that horticultural observation that “our Succoth symbolism can, therefore, today serve a double and unique purpose. It can unite the Orient and the Occident, the past and the present.”

Still other Reform clergy sought alternative ways to “awaken” their congregants to Sukkot’s virtues by emphasizing its visual appeal. Bringing the sukkah indoors and onto the pulpit of the Reform congregation, they transformed the ritual structure into an aesthetic experience whose artful arrangement of autumnal branches and leaves, fruits, and berries pleased the eye rather than tested one’s patience or the limits of the public square. Distilling the holiday’s essence to the nth degree, a number of temples dispensed with the sukkah altogether, instead depositing samples of America’s vegetal bounty—pumpkins, potatoes, corn, apples—on the steps of the altar to bring home the festival’s relationship to nature.

Imaginatively minded Jewish housewives, meanwhile, were encouraged to take their cue from the holiday’s floralization in the sanctuary and to run with it by miniaturizing the sukkah and turning into a centerpiece for their dining room table, replete with mini-tent poles, cloth bows, cranberry chains, and “tiny” electric lights. Once in their hands, the rough and tumble, the makeshift, quality of the traditional sukkah gave way to something that more closely approximated a dainty dollhouse.

Thanks to these newfound approaches, American Jews, it was hoped, might be persuaded to give Sukkot a try. No longer would they have to worry about braving the elements should the fall weather turn chilly and wet or, for that matter, of having to put up with the scorn of the less tolerant. A privatized, feminized, and domesticated equivalent awaited, a demonstration of Judaism’s adaptability and proof positive that, as the American Hebrew roundly put it, “there is absolutely nothing gloomy” about Sukkot.

Armed with this conviction, and, over time, feeling more secure about themselves and their faith, subsequent generations of American Jews—especially our own—would take things a step further. They not only restored the outdoor sukkah, even relishing the prospect of constructing one, but also came up with a new series of culturally relevant approaches to the holiday likely to put a smile on Montague Cohen and David Phillipson’s faces.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.