- Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture by Gabrielle Anna Berlinger
The feast of Sukkot (tabernacles) lasts 7 days in the first month of the Jewish calendar (September–October), when one traditionally builds a temporary shelter or a booth: a sukkah (the singular form of sukkot), commemorating the wanderings of the ancient Israelites in the desert. It so happened that I received this book for review on the eve of the Sukkot holiday. A day later, like many Israelis who do not build sukkot, I set off with my family on a short holiday to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert. I tried resolving some of the tensions that Gabrielle Anna Berlinger's new book on Sukkot brought to the fore: the tension between a material object and spiritual ideas; living in one place and wandering; inter-generational traditions and traditions gathered from other sources; collective identity as opposed to individual innovation and interpretation. By the time I got to the conclusion, I had become [End Page 334] aware of the immense diversity of interpretations of this ritual and the way the sukkah as a material object conveys different ideals, dreams, and temporalities. Berlinger offers questions that go beyond the ritual and that are relevant for anyone interested in vernacular architecture, ephemeral material culture, and the way cultures of resistance are invested with new meaning, even when they are based on older traditions.
In the introduction, Berlinger reveals her theoretical and methodological leanings: studying Sukkot in the context of vernacular architecture and folklore. She views the sukkah as the locus of permanence and ephemerality, ritual and practice, investigating the manners in which an impermanent structure figures what a "home" might mean, how belonging to a community is conveyed through the construction of the sukkah, and how the ritual is perceived by sukkah builders. The ephemeral nature of sukkot is particularly revealing because, as opposed to other forms of vernacular architecture, the building and dismantling of the sukkah every year calls its builders to find new meanings in what is seemingly a given tradition. As a result of this, Berlinger conducts multi-sited fieldwork, wandering between different temporary structures. The first chapter looks at Sukkot observance in Bloomington, Indiana, and the last chapter investigates Sukkot in Brooklyn, New York. In between, five chapters are based on fieldwork carried out in Israel: three investigate Shchunat Hatikva in South Tel Aviv, one investigates Sukkot in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and one examines Sukkot in Israel in the context of the struggle for housing (the 2011 Israeli Occupy movement). While architecture—vernacular or not—conveys the idea of stability and rootedness, Berlinger's route deliberately alerts us to the unstable nature of sukkot.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the two residents of Bloomington who built sukkot were not raised in Indiana; the same goes for Berlinger, who did her graduate studies there. This first chapter prepares the reader for the rest of the book, as one confronts traditions that are negotiated in the most individualist manner and how sukkot are fundamentally about the transformation that takes place on routes rather than roots, to paraphrase James Clifford (Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press, 1997).
The next three chapters shift to the Shchunat Hatikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv, where one is confronted with a well-defined geographic area in which different ethnic communities with different traditions co-exist. Doubtless, there are other neighborhoods in Israel that have such a clear geographic local identity, but even here, sukkot are not about roots. The first of these chapters surveys the neighborhood as an urban enclave that can be clearly demarcated based on economic, geographic, political, and ethnic differences. In contrast, the next chapter bypasses the outsider's gaze by examining Shchunat Hatikva from within, gradually moving from the most visible and public sites to the private and secluded—the market, Bnei Yehuda football club, houses of worship, devotion in restaurants, devotion in the synagogue, and, finally...