The following is a guest post by Gabrielle Berlinger, author of Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture.
On an early fall day in the late 1930s in the village of Buttenhausen in southern Germany, Naphtali Berlinger hammered nails into wooden planks to construct a sukkah in the garden beside his house. A middle-aged man with a long beard, Naphtali was performing a ritual activity in preparation for the annual, week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The temporary wooden shelter that he would construct and furnish with a table, chairs, and decorations from his home would commemorate the temporary shelters that the Israelites inhabited during their Biblical journey through the Sinai Desert towards the Promised Land. The opportunity to “dwell” in ephemeral outdoor shelters for the holiday week allows Jews to express gratitude for survival in the wilderness through prayer, social gatherings, shared meals, and reflection on the notions of materiality and spirituality, homelessness and home, exclusion and belonging.
Naphtali’s sukkah had wooden walls, one window, and a wooden floor. Green brush that Naphtali had gathered from the earth created the roof as required by religious law, and the interior was adorned with sparkling streamers and ornaments. Dangling lights illuminated the table around which his family shared meals and shone on the framed pictures that he had removed from the walls of his house to decorate this temporary domestic space.
In the middle of one night that holiday week, Nazi youth attacked Naphtali’s sukkah, broke the structure into pieces and threw them into the river across from his house. When Naphtali discovered the devastation the next morning, he immediately climbed onto the steep roof of his house and began removing shingles from one section, as his daughter Yetta watched in fright, terrified that he would fall. Over the cleared section of the roof, he lay newly gathered brush to create a sukkah within the walls of his home that could not be destroyed. With determination and faith, he reclaimed a space of sanctity within a hostile environment.
Naphtali was my great-grandfather, a rabbi, teacher, and artist. His devotion to Sukkot Jewish tradition inspired me as I researched and wrote my book, Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture. In it, I seek to understand how and why people build sukkot today in environments of social conflict or cohesion. Sivan, a woman whom I met in Jaffa, Israel, interpreted her family’s sukkah this way: “The table and everyone around it, that’s your life… This schach [roof cover] over your head? This protects you. The decorations in the sukkah? These are the ornaments that decorate your life, the things that make you complete. These corner poles and beams on the roof connected with ropes? Those are the ties you have with people in life… And the portability of the sukkah – it means do not despair, do not lose hope. It was destroyed? Build it again.” The annual ritual of sukkah construction and use awakens possibility: the possibility to reframe one’s life, the possibility to rebuild community, the possibility to be at home in the desert.
Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture is available for pre-order from Indiana University Press.