Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture


The sukkah, the symbolic ritual home built during the annual Jewish holiday of Sukkot, commemorates the temporary structures that sheltered the Israelites as they journeyed across the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Despite the simple Biblical prescription for its design, the remarkable variety of creative expression in the construction, decoration, and use of the sukkah, in both times of peace and national upheaval, reveals the cultural traditions, political convictions, philosophical ideals, and individual aspirations that the sukkah communicates for its builders and users today.

In this ethnography of contemporary Sukkot observance, Gabrielle Anna Berlinger examines the powerful role of ritual and vernacular architecture in the formation of self and society in three sharply contrasting Jewish communities: Bloomington, Indiana; South Tel Aviv, Israel; and Brooklyn, New York. Through vivid description and in-depth interviews, she demonstrates how constructing and decorating the sukkah and performing the weeklong holiday's rituals of hospitality provide unique circumstances for creative expression, social interaction, and political struggle. Through an exploration of the intersections between the rituals of Sukkot and contemporary issues, such as the global Occupy movement, Berlinger finds that the sukkah becomes a tangible expression of the need for housing and economic justice, as well as a symbol of the longing for home.


One of the most challenging, yet rewarding, features of this research project was navigating multiple language situations during my fieldwork in South Tel Aviv. Although I spoke, read, and wrote Hebrew conversationally when I set out into the field, I planned to conduct my interviews in English and alternate between the two languages in everyday exchanges as needed. Unexpectedly, most of the Jewish residents of Shchunat Hatikva, the main site of this ethnographic work, did not speak enough English to converse at length with me, and most of their grown children, first- and second-generation Israelis who did speak English fluently, had moved out of the neighborhood. the remaining older residents spoke a variety of Arabic dialects, having emigrated largely from countries across the Middle East and North Africa, and had learned Hebrew as a second language after settling in Israel. At home with family or friends, they often communicated in their mother tongues, but Hebrew was the language that they spoke in public and in which I communicated with them. Thus, by necessity, my Hebrew fluency increased rapidly from the first day of my fieldwork. Fortunately, many people in the community sympathized with my early struggle to improve my Hebrew and took me under their wings, helping to translate complex exchanges as well as they could. the partnerships we formed through this process were an unexpected and meaningful boon to my fieldwork experience, helping to integrate me into the community and gain trust through mutual dependency.

While writing this ethnography, I relied upon professional translators and native speakers of Hebrew to assist me in the precise translation of formal interviews as well as informal recordings made throughout my sixteen months of fieldwork. When transliteration as well as translation of Hebrew words was needed, I drew upon the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) transliteration of Hebrew as the guide by which to ensure consistency. All italicized words are transliterated from Hebrew unless otherwise noted.

Regarding names, I have used a variety of ways of referring to those whom I quote in this book. Following standard academic practice, I cite scholars by their full name first, and then by last name only in every subsequent instance. Most often, I refer not to academic scholars but to those with whom I lived and worked during my fieldwork research—the sukkah builders and users who informed this research and my collaborators on the ground. Although I introduce them initially by their full names, I then refer to them by first name only, in contrast to my references to scholars. These individuals became friends in the course of my research and calling them by last name only would inaccurately represent the . . .

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