'Sukkah City': Re-examining a Jewish Holiday Through Design

In Israel for the Jerusalem Film Festival, filmmaker Jason Hutt speaks about his new documentary examining the international design competition devoted to rethinking Sukkot.

Growing up in Potomac, Maryland, Jason Hutt, to put it mildly, never thought much about sukkahs. “That holiday was just not on the radar,” he admits over coffee in Jerusalem. “Everyone paid so much attention to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah that by the time Sukkoth came around, you were just too exhausted.”

But years later, that temporary dwelling at the heart of the seven-day feast of tabernacles that got short-shrifted back in the day - is the centerpiece of the now 36-year-old filmmaker’s charming documentary “Sukkah City,” which had its world premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week.

“The timing of the festival was perfect,” says Hutt, who spent three years working on the film, stepping out of the editing room exactly two days before flying to Ben-Gurion Airport. “…And as Jerusalem is the cradle of Jewish civilization, so, well, it was perfect. ‘From Zion, Torah will come,’ no?” he says with a smile. “Premiering the documentary here is really a huge honor for me.”

The 67-minute-long film follows the international architectural design competition and exhibition known as “Sukkah City,” which took place in New York in the fall of 2010.

The competition is the brainchild of bestselling author Joshua Foer, the younger brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, and Roger Bennett, co-chairman of the Jewish cultural organization Reboot. The event set out to do for Sukkoth, as Bennett put it, something akin to what the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of the 1870s did for Hanukkah - when the organization single-handedly revived and elevated that then-obscure festival to almost Christmas-like proportions.

“Only about five percent of American homes put up a sukkah,” says Foer in the film – "and of those that go up, the majority come out of kits, or are made with lowly plywood and cheap canvas. Our idea was to re-connect both to the memory of the huts that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus and to the idea of the impermanence of life today…and to, generally, re-think the tradition". "[We wanted] to tap the tremendous creative potential in the sukkah” explains Foer, whose brother Jonathan, incidentally, was recently the force behind another well-known re-think of a different Jewish holiday – the putting together of an innovative new Passover Haggadah.

Sukkah City got going with a distinguished jury of art critics and architects, convened by Foer and Bennet, putting out a call for sukkah design submissions. The instructions? Re-imagine, using the toolbox of contemporary design- but in keeping with the rules set out in Leviticus- those “booths” the Jews put up during their 40 years wander through the desert.

Living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he settled after attending college at Harvard and a stint in Hollywood, Hutt had just completed his second, successful documentary- ‘Orthodox Stance’- a film about a Ukrainian immigrant trying to balance being a practicing religious Jew with his professional boxing career - and was looking for his next project. He read about the Sukkah City competition in the Brooklyn Arts Council Newsletter, and approached Foer, whom he vaguely knew through the Park Slope Jewish community (“Is anyone making a documentary film about this?” he asked. “You are!” he was told.)

“I love Jewish contemporary life,” says Hutt. “That it, not just the religion itself and shul-going, but I love the culture and history. And also, I love that Judaism remains vibrant after thousands of years, that it has the strength and flexibility for interpretation and re-interpretation.” Moreover, he could tell, continues Hutt, “that this architecture competition – where the entries were taking design rules from the bible and completely reinterpreting the structure using 21st century creativity and technology –would be dramatic.”

Hutt began filming just as the jury sat down to weed through over six hundred designs that came pouring in from seventy countries around the world. Heavyweights like Michael Arad, one of the designers of the World Trade Center Memorial, and Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New Yorker, are seen debating the merits of shape, materials and originality – along with (and with the help of rabbinic consultant Dani Passow) halachic questions such as whether the proposed roofings would be both thick enough to shade those sitting inside in daytime but also thin enough so that stars would be visible by night.

The jury then chose twelve winning teams, gave $10,000 to each, and sent them off to actually build their proposed creations. These, in turn, ten days later, were transported by flatbed trucks to Union Square Park in New York City, and re-assembled for the exhibition with the help of forklifts, buzz saws and power drills.

Orthodox Jewish kids dropped by to check it out. Skateboarders in black leather stopped to look. Shoppers exiting nearby Filene’s Basement wondered whether the designs were kosher. Elderly couples strolled by and snapped pictures, and homeless men debated the merits of the roofings.

Created by Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Baha’i architects and artists, the sukkahs were a diverse bunch: among them, “Log,” a slick glass-walled structure topped with a huge cedar log, in keeping with the tradition that the roof of the hut must be made from organic material removed from the ground; “Sukkah of the Signs,” a hut constructed out of hand-written cardboard signs purchased from homeless people across the U.S.; And “Shim City” built entirely of wooden construction shims, the building material normally used to fill gaps and level uneven floors, which came complete with a box of shims next to the structure, allowing passersby to add in more slim wooden slats and complete the hut.

The film concludes with Mayor Michael Bloomberg joining Bennett and Foer at Union Square to announce the "People's Choice" winner - which went to “Fractured Bubble,” a sukkah in the shape of a sphere with three sections, created by Queens architects Henry Grosman and Babek Bryan, which was made of plywood and twine, with an invasive species of marsh grass harvested from Corona, Queens, as roofing.

“The Sukkah City exhibition lasted for just two days, though, which means thousands of New Yorkers only heard about it after the fact, and millions of people outside of New York only read about it,” says Hutt. “I felt a documentary would not only give the whole project context– but would preserve it and allow many more people to experience it.”

Along with the premiere, Hutt was celebrating this week his second wedding anniversary, and after the screening he set off on a road trip across Israel with his wife Wendy Bassin, who was visiting the country for the first time. Next up, he will be heading back to the U.S. to take the film to other festivals, beginning with the San Francisco Jewish Festival at the month's end.

Come September, back home in Park Slope, does Hutt, perhaps inspired by his own film, intend to build his own sukkah for the first time? “No,” comes the surprise answer. “Designing and putting up a sukkah is a really serious time commitment,” he shrugs. “Also, my wife is constantly complaining that she wants outside space, but in New York it’s really difficult to make that happen. We live in an apartment in a brownstone.”

But he will, he stresses, be out there shaking a lulav and etrog, or at the very least having lunch in the communal sukkah at his synagogue. And it goes without saying that from now on, the holiday will definitely be very much on his radar. 

Christopher Farber