Framing Sukkot

Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

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Gabrielle Anna Berlinger
Material Vernaculars
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Across three cities and two continents, Gabrielle Anna Berlinger explores how and why Jewish families build sukkot [singular, sukkah]—the temporary ritual shelters in which observant Jews eat and drink for a week following the beginning of the new year—and what they do in them once they are built. She provides rich personal details about many of the families she met, particularly those living in the ethnically mixed, working class neighborhood of Shchunat Hatikvah in southern Tel Aviv, Israel. Through these details, we see the range of ways that families accommodate religious law and tradition around sukkot construction while nonetheless improvising and imbuing each sukkah with shifting personal and even political significance. For Berlinger, as for many of her informants, the act of building itself—with whom, when, out of what, decorated how—is a major vector of both continuity and change, of nostalgic references to the past and an embrace of the new, and of pedagogical attempts to shape the values and dispositions of peers as well as younger generations.

Throughout the book, Berlinger tacks back and forth between taking sukkot as a subject and as an object of her research. When it is her subject, sukkot allow her to link together the different ritual and material practices of Jews from who hail from quite disparate national, social, and economic contexts. She thus begins and ends the book with very short chapters exploring the practices of Reform Jews living in the American Midwest and ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jews living in and around Crown Heights, New York. These chapters bookend a much longer and far more sociologically-minded study of the ethnically-marked Jews living in southern Tel Aviv.

At other times, Berlinger takes sukkot as an object of her research. This allows her to explore a series of politically sensitive questions about both individual subjectivity and community. Sukkot recalls the biblical story of Exodus and forty years of Israelite wandering; it raises questions about what is permanent and what is ephemeral; and it requires Jews to voluntarily leave their homes while opening their sukkot to guests. It is therefore an ideal moment to document how Jewish Israelis in a heavily immigrant neighborhood in Tel Aviv—almost all of whom have recent and well-remembered histories of immigration—discursively and performatively engage with questions about strangerhood, community, and belonging. The residents of Shchunat Hatikvah are vocal critics of Israeli-style capitalism as well as the government’s lack of attention to basic humanitarian needs, most particularly adequate housing for poor ethnicized Jews. At the same time, Hatikvah residents strongly oppose the arrival of non-Jewish immigrants, particularly African asylum seekers who are often resettled by government agencies in already poor and stigmatized areas. They see this resettlement policy as endangering the character of their neighborhood and as proof of their own exclusion and marginalization. Middle-class Israeli progressives have thus labeled Hatikvah’s residents “racists” and see them as undermining a leftist critique of the current Israeli government. For Berlinger, Sukkot allows a different entry point into Hatikvah resident’s politics of belonging, complicating facile accusations of “racism” while exploring what it means to be a “community” in this particular context. For Berlinger, this is most dramatically illustrated by the 2011 convergence of Hatikvah’s Sukkot celebration with an occupy-like social movement protesting the rising cost of housing and government corruption, as well as the resettlement of non-Jewish African migrants. But while Berlinger works hard to show the ways in which residents of Hatikvah use Sukkot to meditate on strangerhood and to open themselves up to strangers, she does not fully explore the limits of the kinds of community they enact. While linking Sukkot in Hatikvah to debates of strangerhood, Berlinger does not quite explain how the community’s politics of inclusion and exclusion are enacted and reflected through Sukkot rituals.

Given the richness of Berlinger’s ethnographic data and the wide variety of theoretical frameworks she might have put into play, there are inevitably other missed analytical opportunities. If Berlinger is focused on talking to scholars interested in folklore and vernacular architecture, there are ways in which her attention to ritual practice during Sukkot might usefully add to growing conversations about ritual and everyday religious life in anthropology and religious studies. Some of Berlinger’s sukkah builders, like the Lubavitchers, can be considered part of the new piety movements that have recently attracted considerable attention because of their attempts to carefully and “religiously” regulate everyday life. But most of the families in Berlinger’s story do not fall into this camp. And yet specific forms of ritual practice become moments for reflecting on political questions about community and value, making the boundaries between the “secular” and the “religious” productively porous even for those who may not imagine themselves as pious. In other words, Berlinger implies that there are not fully “pious” people for whom ritual is life, on the one hand, and secular people who dabble in ritual, on the other. Religious ritual is a way of life across a wide spectrum of Jewish practice, both in Israel and outside it. Furthermore, although some of the rabbis who Berlinger got to know were uncomfortable about the idea of talking “politics” in the sukkah, she shows how deeply political Sukkot is from beginning to end. Sometimes this is because her informants link changing construction practices to growing consumerism and capitalist transformations of time; sometimes it is because people are forced to think about who “guests” are and how they should be treated both by individual families and by the wider community; and sometimes it is because the boundaries between private and public are challenged and reworked. 

I think Berlinger misses opportunities to flesh out the significance of these categorical troubles in large part because she can’t seem to decide whether her book is about Sukkot or about what Sukkot allows her to see. While providing fascinating and abundant ethnographic detail about sukkah builders, their families, and their daily lives, she raises important theoretical questions that merit additional attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Arkin is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gabrielle Anna Berlinger is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore and the Babette S. and Bernard J. Tanenbaum Fellow in Jewish History and Culture at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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