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Sukkot in a global context

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A dozen years have passed since Sukkah City held its first sukkah building exhibition in New York City’s Union Square. That inaugural event attracted hundreds of architectural entries from around the world, all of them reimagined versions of the traditional sukkah — the temporary ritual shelter, or hut, that observant Jews construct, welcome guests to, dine in and live in (weather permitting) in celebration of the seven-day festival of Sukkot.

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A dozen years have passed since Sukkah City held its first sukkah building exhibition in New York City’s Union Square. That inaugural event attracted hundreds of architectural entries from around the world, all of them reimagined versions of the traditional sukkah — the temporary ritual shelter, or hut, that observant Jews construct, welcome guests to, dine in and live in (weather permitting) in celebration of the seven-day festival of Sukkot.

Sukkot begins this fall on the evening of Oct, 9, following the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sukkot is also one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, hearkening back to a time when ancient Israelites made annual pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem.

A kosher sukkah is required to have three walls — but not sturdy walls — and a roof — usually made from foliage — that allows those who dwell inside to be able to see the stars at night. According to Talmudic teachings, sukkot (the plural of sukkah) were first built to provide shelter to the Israelite people as they wandered the desert for 40 years after fleeing slavery in Egypt. The huts were later constructed to provide provisional shelter during the harvest season.

The success of and interest in the inaugural Sukkah City inspired many other communities around the world to host their own sukkot exhibitions in the years since. By re-conceiving what a sukkah can look like, and in so doing, merging art and faith, these exhibits have prompted designers and onlookers alike to consider the relevance of Sukkot in contemporary times, as well as what a sukkah might represent in a larger global context.

As the literature accompanying the 2019 Sukkah City exhibition in Sydney, Australia, explains, “The ritual of Sukkot directly wrestles with the challenges of the global citizen, raising questions about topics ranging from homelessness and displacement to environmentalism, impermanence, the definition of perfection, and social isolation.”

Although there has not yet been a Sukkah City event held here in Winnipeg, the holiday itself should serve as impetus enough for both members and non-members of the Jewish community to consider what it means to have, or not have, shelter or a place to call home. War, persecution and extreme environmental disruption, according to the UNHCR, have resulted in the largest number of refugees the world has ever seen —globally there are currently more than 27 million people who have been displaced from their homelands, five million asylum seekers, and another 53 million who are internally displaced.

In Canada, due to a lack of affordable housing, poverty, marginalization, illness and a variety of other critical factors, close to a quarter million people experience temporary or chronic homelessness on any given day. In Winnipeg, that number is estimated to be about 1,100 people.

In the same way that the Warming Huts Art and Architecture competition held every winter here on the Red River serves as a reminder of the human right to shelter, so too should the holiday of Sukkot.

The sukkah, according to Sukkah City founder, Joshua Foer, “… is an architecture of both memory and empathy — memory of the huts the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt long ago, and empathy for those who live today without solid shelter over their heads.”

When the snow falls in Winnipeg a few weeks from now, those who built sukkot as a means of expressing their faith will be safely back in their warm homes. But the world’s refugees and our country’s homeless will still be searching for somewhere to live.

swchisvin@gmail.com

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