What Is a Sukkah?

Staff Writer
Unusual designs fit for a dinner party to celebrate Sukkot
What Is a Sukkah?
Istock/tovfla

Sukkot (soo-coat) is a festive Jewish holiday that celebrates the fall harvest, and the shelters, or Sukkahs (soo-kas), which were used in biblical times during periods of wandering by Jews. Beginning October 12th, many modern Jews will celebrate the eight-day-long holiday by building their own Sukkahs at home, often using the structures to host alfresco dinner parties celebrating the harvest.

The beauty of the Sukkah is in its originality, as its builder projects his or her own style into its construction. Whether covered with a roof of pine boughs, a traditional material often used, or something fancier like hundreds of slim planks of wood, it’s the perfect place to dine with friends, enjoying a meal filled with fall flavors by candlelight.

While most regular D.I.Y.-ers can create a simple and decorative shelter in the backyard, architects and visionaries have recently taken the concept to a grander level.  Last year’s Sukkah City contest, in New York City's Union Square, conveyed a notion that the structure can inspire unexpected uses of space, form, and design. Creative contestants with remarkable design talents employed superior imagination. One Sukkah was made from hundreds of thin wooden boards stacked in two directions, creating the communal space. Another standout was the impossible structure of glass walls holding the weight of a massive tree-trunk canopy. Equally visually arousing was the parted, dome-shaped sukkah, filled with sand, and made from plywood, twine, and marsh grass that reaches out in all directions. But you won’t find any Sukkahs made of food — it’s not allowed. But if you had a spare whale or camel in your yard, that would help — traditional rules would allow the sides of the structures to be made of whale and a floor of camel. Who knew?

Last year’s competition has given way to a budding trend, with other cities across the nation planning their own original sukkah experiences. This year, Washington University in St. Louis is hosting their own Sukkah City, inviting designers to re-imagine this ancient dwelling through a progressive lens. Contestants are encouraged to tell a story of “the boundaries that define what it means to be human,” says Rabbi Andy Kastner of the Washington University in St. Louis Hillel, using the theme “Defining and Defying Boundaries” to guide their designs. Many will compete, yet only 10  finalists are selected to build their own design. Members of the community will also be encouraged to visit, dine, and celebrate the season within the structures on display.

Click here to see the What is a Sukkah Slideshow.