Friday, September 24, 2010

Innovative Modern Sukkot

My dad once commented that I talk about many of my past jobs on this blog (Boy Scouts, Hillel, summer camp), but never my current one working with him. I told him as soon as I found a place where building product marketing consulting intersected with modern Jewish studies I'd work it in. So here you go dad; happy new year!

NY Times Magazine recently posted the 12 finalists in their modern sukkah design contest. While there were many beautiful entries, I especially like #8, "Sukkah of the Signs" by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello of Oakland, California (check out the article for a larger shot). From the description of the project:
"It is traditional to eat and sleep in the sukkah for one week each fall, as a way of practicing a kind of ceremonial homelessness and empathizing with those who don’t have a roof over their heads. As a political statement, and as a way of transferring the prize money to those in need, Sukkah of the Signs is clad with cardboard signs purchased from destitute individuals across the country."
This wasn't my favorite from an aesthetic point of view, but I love the story and message of it. As with all Jewish holidays, there exist a huge variety of explanations of the "meaning" of the festival, starting at the surface level as a harvest holiday and moving on to such ideas as reclaiming our history as a nomadic people, reflecting on the impermanence of all things, being reminded of the fragility of our physical world, being grateful for the houses we do have, and reconnecting with nature. (Sidenote: interesting how many of those ideas started with "re-" verbs. Appropriate as we're just past the beginning of the yearly holiday cycle!) Somewhere in many interpretations of the holiday, however, is the implication that, but for the grace of God, we would be homeless too. Whether metaphorically as a people, lost wandering in the desert, or literally as a family with no roof to sleep beneath.

This reflects in several of the festival traditions, most notably living and dining in such a public space where any homeless people could see us and join us. Some temples also use it as an opportunity for a food drive, if they didn't just do one at Yom Kippur; one temple I belonged to collected fresh apples which were donated to a local food bank. I volunteered to transport them one year, and my car smelled like my favorite parts of fall for months afterward.

To me, a good modern Jewish observance combines a deep spiritual experience with an equally fervent effort to change our world for the better. I like this design for the highlighter it puts on homelessness. It puts the issue front and center; makes it unavoidable. There is a wonderful irony in sleeping in a home made of relics from the homeless; I would expect it to be a transformative experience for anyone that got the chance. If we slept here, we would spend the night considering the blessings that fill our lives, and return the next day to our homes filled with gratitude for all we have received. After that it would not be nearly so easy to turn a blind eye to the homeless people we pass on the street. Especially the ones holding the signs we ourselves might be sleeping under a year from now.

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