Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

By Gabrielle Berlinger. 2017. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 269 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-03182-2 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Thomas Carter, University of Utah

[Review length: 865 words • Review posted on September 27, 2018]


[Cover ofFraming Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture]

This book comes as a nice surprise. Folklorists don’t write much about buildings these days, so Gabrielle Berlinger’s Framing Sukkot, which views the ritual observances of the Sukkot festival through the lens of architecture, is a welcome addition to the literature, both in folklore and vernacular architecture studies. Berlinger calls it, rightly, an ethnographic rather than an architectural study, and while this may disappoint some of us more building-minded souls, the book nevertheless delivers not only great insight into contemporary Jewish culture, but in the process also becomes a well-crafted example of one important strain of folklore material culture practice. In this kind of study, buildings play a secondary role in the analysis, serving mainly as devices for generating talk about, in this case, the Sukkot festival and its meaning to contemporary Jews. It’s an effective research strategy that here yields a series of intimate conversations concerning the nature of religion and importance of ritual in the everyday life of Jews throughout the world.

At the heart of the study is the Sukkot festival, which comes in the fall, immediately following Yom Kippur. Sukkot commemorates both the harvest “ingathering” and, more importantly, the Israelites forty-year exile in the desert following the expulsion from Egypt. “Within this historical framing,” Berlinger notes, “Sukkot recalls a period of longing and life without permanent shelter.” Central to this observance is the building of a sukkah, a temporary shelter that symbolizes a people's search for both home and homeland. Subthemes include community solidarity (through hospitality) and the importance of living the spiritual (rather than material) life. All of these ideas come together in the sukkah, whose form, construction, and use is set forth in Hebrew scripture, both in the Torah and Talmud. In practice, however, as Berlinger explains, doctrinal rigidity gives way to the exigencies of individual interpretation and creation, a fluidity that allows families to bring their own meaning to the sukkot ritual.

Folklorists will recognize this as primarily a performance-based study, for the book’s message revolves around the complex interplay between tradition and innovation that characterizes sukkah construction and use. Fieldwork in both the United States (Bloomington, Indiana, and Brooklyn, New York) and Israel (the Shchunat Hatikv section of south Tel Aviv) reveals a great diversity in both individual sukkah design and the meanings people bring to it. Some, by referencing the period of exile and wandering, establish a strong connection with the Hebrew past. Others stress the need to bring the dispersed Jewish community together through the sharing of a common ritual (as well as the food and conversation that accompany it). Still others look to the future, committed to the belief that impermanence is a human condition solved only in the presence of God. These stories, skillfully retold within the overarching framework of the sukkah building ritual, make good reading and I found myself quickly immersed in the lives of the various families highlighted in the book. Sometimes people like these get lost in the scholarly verbiage, but not here. It’s not that this isn’t a smart book. It is. There’s lots of theory. But at the same time it is, first and foremost, a book about people and their quest to make sense of an increasingly complex and chaotic world. I recommend it highly.

And not just for folklorists. Those interested in vernacular architecture will find it useful as well, as an example of how most folklorists these days deal with buildings. Berlinger doesn’t really say this (and appears not all that conversant with what’s happening in the world of vernacular architecture studies), but that doesn’t matter because the method is here, embedded in the text. I can point to three main features. First is a reliance on fieldwork, which involves collecting data through personal observation, interviewing people, and doing a bit of architectural documentation (sadly the few sukkah drawings provided here are tucked away in an appendix). Second is a focus on the ordinary or vernacular, and sukkah are perhaps the most ordinary of structures (although very intriguing and worthy of study in their own right). And finally, what might be called an “experiential” approach to analysis that focuses not on the buildings but rather on how people infuse buildings with meaning (which is easier when the people you are studying are still around to talk with). These elements of practice are not unique to folklorists, and in fact exemplify much current vernacular architecture scholarship. But we do have our own style, and it is important that books like this get wider recognition within the field and its main professional organization, the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF).

So this is an important and timely book: important because it contributes significantly to the expanding literature on Jewish history and culture; and timely due to its arrival just as many are questioning the relationship folklore as a discipline has to the field of vernacular architecture studies. Readers get both an investigation of the ritual observances surrounding Sukkot, one of the principal (but lesser known) Jewish festivals, and a treatise in folklore architectural methodology. This duality, I believe, makes Framing Sukkot essential reading for folklorists and students of vernacular architecture alike, an unlikely but fortuitous marriage of interests.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.