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Liz Neumark

Liz Neumark

Posted: September 21, 2010 10:13 AM

Eternally Temporary

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On the heels of Yom Kippur, the most solemn and holiest day of the Jewish calendar (and the least enjoyable/non-food holiday) comes one most festive and easy to love - Sukkot:

"Sukkot , Feast of Booths, Feast of Tabernacles. The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.... The sukkah becomes the living area of the house, and all meals are eaten in it." (Wikipedia) It is also known as the harvest festival, its' proximately to fall bounty.

For 2 days this week, a Sukkah City stood in New York's Union Square park - the brainchild of Joshua Foer and his co-conspirator Roger Bennett. Conceived as a project to imbue an ancient Jewish building tradition with modern relevancy, while capturing the essence of the festival, Sukkah City emerged as a symbol for religious tolerance and sharing of cultural values. And an exploration in creating community.

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Sunday was one of the most perfect days in NYC this year. Life, beauty, and bounty were everywhere - and in every corner of the city, activities abounded. Against this backdrop, Sukkah City greeted its public.

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Unexpectedly, I fell in love with these structures. I watched them intermittingly over 36 hours as the scenery changed from crowds of families to late night urban prowlers; from high noon to full moon (just about) - as they blossomed like flowers, though still and unmoving.

A Sukkah is designed for living. As a child, my parents (mom in particular) would build a Sukkah every year - a frenzied labor of love that spanned 3 days of intense creativity and physical work. We each had our jobs to do: Grandma Nellie would string crab apple curtains, Grandpa would be responsible for affixing the 'snow ball's (aka hydrangeas) onto the external wall, my sisters and I would string vegetable trios and long loops of cranberries. Treasured decorations were taken out of the basement each year, not unlike Christmas tree ornaments stored and cherished, and each one was put into its place. Those readers, who remember the Six Day War in the Middle East and the victorious Israeli General Moshe Dayan, will appreciate the black eye patch that was placed on the pumpkin centerpiece that year. An annual favorite was a bunch of sugar canes in one corner, with small stuffed Steif monkeys chasing each other up to the top (and we were the only kids in the neighborhood who knew how to cut and eat sugar cane.)

When the holiday started, there were endless meals punctuated by the arrival of yellow jackets attracted to the hanging fruits and vegetables, flowers and pots of honey for dipping with apples and challah breads. Oh, the things we remember, like figuring out how to trap and release the bees and not get stung.

But of all the memories, what stands out most is the lollipop tree that only 'grew' in our Sukkah. Mom explained that is was "the miracle of Sukkot" that caused this tree to bloom, though I clearly remember a trunk with stapled branches, and lollipops affixed with string and bows. The year Rachel inadvertently discovered the bags of pops in a dresser drawer was a devastating yet exhilarating shock to us all, though we continued to pretend to believe, to make mom feel good.

As the crowds descended upon Union Square park, it was interesting to watch the mix while contemplating the motivation of the 600 designer/applicants to enter the contest. Josh explained the fascination of architects with constraints - 3 walls, porous roof, and size/volume requirements - that transcended any religious affiliation and spoke to the passion to craft creative and distinctive solutions. 'Halachic' consultant (interpreting Jewish law regarding Sukkah building), Dani Passow, shared the challenge of the "Log" and the solution of drilling holes through its core to create a porous/non-permanent roof. Each structure had a personality that captured the imagination of the crowd (estimated at 150,00 on Sunday alone.)

I left to eat my way through less esoteric festivals that nourished the body the way Sukkah City tickled the mind and touched the soul. The bounty of the season filled me with its lushness and the siren of the Sukkah evoked the memories of celebrating seasonal harvest. My first sightings parsnips and celeriac, along with pumpkins, mums and gourds, the last 3 being prominent in my childhood Sukkah, reminded me of the immanent change in season, just the way a holiday evokes powerful associations with time of year and experiences.

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I returned to Union Square late Sunday night to say goodnight. It was a transformed landscape.

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This afternoon, I returned again. Overnight these structures had become part of the park, as if they belonged. And though dozens upon dozens of viewers came to stare, study and photograph, the crazy pattern of life in the Square continued around them almost oblivious to their presence. The non-permanent structures were putting down roots, fitting in with the uniqueness of their surrounding, and adding their beauty and vigor to ours. I remembered The Gates, and how they became part of us and how suddenly one morning they were gone. I lingered, as it got dark, photographing to preserve the memories just like I shoot a zillion tomatoes to preserve the harvest.

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Time to go home. I left thinking about the lollipop tree and how each of my siblings and I incorporated the miraculous tree into the Sukkahs we built for our children. En route to the subway I passed Starbucks with a message on the door: Take Comfort in Rituals.

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