A Mitzvah of Art

An entire genre of religious artists show their work only in sukkot, and only during the holiday. But the practice is fading as the artists age

In Bnei Brak, after the holiday meal on the first evening of Sukkot, children would go together to see all the sukkot in the city. We would stop in every backyard, stick our heads between the sheets that were the sukkah's walls, survey the decorations - most of them handmade - and then argue about whose was the nicest. The high point of the tour was "Ashlag's sukkah" on Shadal Street. Thet large sukkah in the courtyard of the shul of the Ashlag Hasidim was like an art exhibition. Inside were miniatures based on stories in the Jewish sources, and other illustrations and pictures depicting in great detail biblical scenes like the Binding of Isaac and the tent of Abraham.

All of Bnei Brak would stand in line at the entrance to the sukkah in tense anticipation. But the children had their own ways of sneaking in. Through the slits we saw amazing sights: a miniature wooden Noah's Ark, illustrations of wild animals or even stuffed animal heads, as it is written: "Be as strong as a tiger, as swift as an eagle, as fast as a deer and as brave as a lion." Because we only saw fractions of these images, their power increased as our imagination sought to complete them.

Yaakov Weisberg
Tomer Appelbaum

Several of the most illustrious sukkot - which were called "sukkot pele" (wonder sukkot ) - are still in use in Bnei Brak and in Mea She'arim in Jerusalem, and huge numbers of people visit them even today. One that has been recreated is the Ashlag sukkah, which was dear to the heart of the first rabbi of that Hasidic dynasty, Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (known as Ba'al Hasulam - the "author of 'The Ladder,'" who died in 1954 ), considered the father of modern kabbala.

His son, Rabbi Shlomo Benyamin Ashlag, followed in his footsteps. Though the original Ashlag sukkah no longer exists, an almost exact replica was made, says David Ashlag, the director of the Ashlag institutions. Members of the sect believe that "when you leave the house for the sukkah, the four foundations of the universe represented in it ascend: earth, fire, water and wind - as happened in the Temple," he says. As a reference to the Shiloah Pool, the world's source of water, the sukkah has waterfalls and various other displays prepared by the son-in-law of the current rebbe, who is highly skilled with his hands.

I couldn't remember why Ashlag's sukkah was so full of light. David Ashlag managed to solve that riddle: the old sukkahhad light fixtures out of which emanated flashing lights. It turns out that "divine light" is of significance in the kabbala and the Zohar.

The work of sukkah artists is considered "hidur mitzvah," a worthwhile investment of effort in realizing a mitzvah. Prof. Shalom Tzabar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an expert on Jewish folklore, says this is the concept behind Judaica works connected to mitzvot. The source of hidur mitzvah on Sukkot is a discussion in the Talmud based on the interpretation of the verse, "This is my God and I will beautify/glorify Him" from the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. The Gemara asks how this is done, how does one beautify God, and the answer specifically mentions a sukkah.

The magnificent sukkot may contradict the original essence of the sukkah as a modest temporary home, but they are an obsession: Exclusive creations by artists who work on them for years on end, and whose work is seen almost solely in the sukkah. Tzabar says this is a modern development.

"In the course of Jewish history, people would beautify the sukkah with attractive fruits, superior greenery on the roof, expensive tapestries on the walls - in almost all North African and Middle Eastern ethnic groups; and lovely pictures of biblical or other subjects - in Germany and Italy, for example . However, fulfilling the mitzvah of building a sukkah was always far more important than decorating it."

The sukkah artists are autodidacts. They have no connection to the art world or to the Judaica market. Virtually all of them are known only in their own communities, as being "good with their hands," and they have never tried to breach the boundaries. Their subjects are similar and they may copy one another: In many cases they use matches to build models of synagogues from communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust, models of the Temple or the Tabernacle, and displays of biblical scenes.

That does not mean that they don't yearn for recognition.

A Jerusalemite from Mea She'arim, Yaakov Weisberg, still boasts that Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, came to his sukkah in 1949, when it was crowned most beautiful sukkah in Jerusalem. A born artist, he says that he used razor blades thrown out by the British to turn erasers into seals with the names of his classmates. When he grew up he managed a diamond factory, but at night he worked in a studio in a closed balcony in his apartment. The model of which he is most proud is of the Temple, the product of endless hours of work.

Weisberg usually works based on pictures. But to create the temple model, he also studied and researched the subject in texts. According to Tzabar, such models are common in the Christian world, for example in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He says German architect Conrad Schick made several models of the Temple and of Jerusalem, and displayed them in his Jerusalem home.

But Weisberg, who serves as the in-house artist for the Haredi community in Mea She'arim, apparently is completely unfamiliar with these works. He designed the ark in the huge new study hall of the Belz Hasidim, and many of his works were commissioned by various Hasidic sects, which display them in their institutions and synagogues.

His sons and daughters, who seem to have inherited his talent, are also involved in art.

Other Sukkah artists are even more modest than Weisberg. "When I was a young man we were a group of Hasidim who were responsible for preparing a beautiful sukkah for the rebbe," says Yitzhak Ungar, a Vizhnitz Hasid in his 70s from Bnei Brak. "After I married I wanted to express my talent in a sukkah of my own."

The main impetus came when the great Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky (the Steipler Rav ), visited a veteran sukkat pele. "I saw him looking with the eyes of someone who understands. He surveyed every detail. After 20 minutes he said two words: hidur mitzvah. It did something to me. That same Saturday night I sat and made a few items. And then for an entire year I prepared the sukkah."

Among other things, he made a depiction of the breastplate worn by Aaron the High Priest. He says his unique contribution is that he creates works based on the biblical commentary of Rashi as well as the Midrashim and the Gemara. Ungar also made miniatures of Vizhnitz institutions as well as dioramas. And of course the Ushpizin (the seven biblical figures who are said to be honored "guests" in the sukkah ), a tent for Abraham, an altar with a sheep to symbolize the Binding of Isaac, a ladder for Jacob.

Sukkot pele are gradually disappearing. The artists are aging and they have no successors. Weisberg, for example, is almost 90. Ungar, who earlier this week removed with fear and trembling from his ceiling crawl space items he created years ago, says that he no longer displays all the items as in the past. And fewer people come.

"Today people no longer make things by hand. Sukkot today are more electric. I always liked to understand everything, to study, and then to create," he says.

Aryeh Grossman, a reporter for the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne'eman, who also remembers those sukkot from his childhood, says that children no longer go to see sukkot. Maybe that's because the booths have disappeared from the courtyards and moved to the balconies.