Vernacular New York: Social and Religious Architecture, An Encounter with Sukkot in Crown Heights

posted on 23 Nov 2014 21:46 by sumolsen
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By Ariel Rosenblum

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The Jewish holiday of Sukkot is marked annually every autumn by the building of temporary dwellings. These structures called sukkahs (plural: sukkot) represent the nomadic shelters the Israelites lived in for 40 years during their journey through the Sinai Desert after their exodus from Egypt. On October 14th, the last day of the weeklong Sukkot festival, Gabrielle Berlinger’s “Vernacular New York” class visited the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Street, the epicenter of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. There, we continued an examination of social and religious architecture through the lens of the Sukkot holiday. The trip encompassed both temporary and permanent religious spaces, and tangible and intangible traditions that sustain one another.

Guest lecturer Joseph Piekarski, raised in this Chabad Lubavitch community, led the tour of the Crown Heights neighborhood in which he grew up, and where his family and many old friends still reside. As Joseph has chosen to live outside of the Hasidic community, his insights from were constructive for bridging our understanding Hasidic life, custom, belief, and their practice of the rituals of Sukkot.

While the focus of our visit centered on the temporary structures built expressly for Sukkot, our first stop was a permanent, now landmarked building, 770 Eastern Parkway. Often referred to as simply “770,” the brick Gothic revival house is the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavich movement. The building was purchased in 1940 for “Congregation Lubavitch,” lead by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, who was later succeeded by his son-in-law Menachem Mendel Schneerson. From its inception the synagogue served three parallel purposes, as a place for daily prayer services, as a study hall, and as an assembly hall for Chabad gatherings. The building gained new layers of significance in the wake of the esteemed Rebbe’s death in 1994. Even though the building is still used for prayer, the material of 770 that belonged to or was touched by the esteemed Rebbe has been frozen in time since his passing, and the image of the building has stood emblematically as a symbol for the Chasidic leader, as no one has succeeded him.

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Once inside 770, we visited the communication call center outfitted with custom engineered switchboards for broadcasting the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sermons to Chabad disciples around the world. A portrait of the late Rebbe hangs alongside these switchboards and phones, while a glass case on the opposing wall displays a collection of objects used for the communication of the Rebbe’s sacred sermons. These objects included microphones, used by the Rebbe, and cameras that documented his sermons. As a space from which the sacred words of the Rebbe were transmitted, the communication center is also a sacred space, and continues to represent the global network of emissaries initiated by the Rebbe.

The physical and spiritual center of the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, 770 and the surrounding neighborhood are a place of pilgrimage during the holiday of Sukkot. Our class could feel the festival atmosphere stepping from the train onto the crowded subway platform at the Kingston stop, and intensified above ground on the sidewalks and streets in the neighborhood. A multitude of languages filled the air as Hasidic Jews from all over the world congregated to pray, eat, celebrate, and socialize, activities that pervaded without boundary, throughout the streets, prayer halls, synagogue, and sukkot. Hospitality is integral to the Sukkot holiday, in both the act of hosting others and ‘sukkah hopping’ within the community. As a temporary sphere that breaks from everyday routines, the sukkah is therefore a space for social and spiritual cohesion.

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We spotted sukkot everywhere - in between houses, on sidewalks, porches, in back yards, alleys, and on fire escapes. There are three building requirements, to be a sukkah the structure must have at least two full walls, it must have a roof made out of natural materials that create a shady covering, and it must be temporary. As these requirements are fairly basic, aesthetic choices are largely left up to the individual and may display specific characteristics according to the sect of Judaism the maker belongs to. For her doctoral research, Gabrielle Berlinger studied Sukkot in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she observed an equally diverse array of sukkahs adorned with material assemblages that reflected personal interpretations of the holiday, as well as individual, familial, and religious identity. In the Chabad community in Crown Heights, however, we found largely uniform, unadorned sukkahs made from industrial materials and pre-fabricated kits.

The class was generously invited into the sukkah of Joseph’s relative, Meyer, who spoke from a personal point of view, while also relating Chabad-Lubavitcher practices during Sukkot with the core tenants of religious belief. Meyer explained the simplicity of the sukkot in the neighborhood, telling us that decorations are unnecessary distractions; to illuminate his point, he made an analogy to cooking, saying that when you are hungry you eat what’s there, and when you’re not so hungry you cook something elaborate. The largely homogenous appearance of simple, unadorned sukkot reflects the Chabad belief that G-d is everywhere; the beauty of the ritual negates a need for decoration.

As part of our study of religious architecture, it was interesting to think about the ways materials are imbued with importance. For all Jews, materiality is integral to Sukkot, a holiday centered on the construction of a shelter, and for which ritual objects - the lulav and etrog, a palm branch and a citrus fruit- are essential for prayer. In the Chabad community, significance is also placed on any number of sacred objects related to the Rebbe, seen in the treatment of 770, the proliferation of his image, and in the consumption of wine and honey-cake he blessed before he passed away. On the other hand, in the Chabad community, the de-emphasis on decoration and materials of personal expression reveals that at once there is both a hierarchy and equality of all material things.

Ariel Rosenblum is a M.A. candidate at the Bard Graduate Center.

Images:

Image 1: Students of the class sit with guest lecturer Joseph Piekarski inside a public sukkah in Crown Heights to discuss interpretations of the holiday's ritual structures

Image 2: The communication center at 770

Image 3: A typical sukkah

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