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Ancient Jewish Tradition Meets Contemporary Design

At Georgetown University this week, an outdoor religious display looks more like a public art installation than a commandment from the Torah, Judaism's holy book.

First, the basics: It's called a sukkah, a temporary dwelling — translated from Hebrew as a "booth" — where observant Jews traditionally eat and sleep during the weeklong harvest holiday of Sukkot.

The holiday, which began the night of Sept. 18, also pays homage to the 40 years during which the Israelites wandered in the desert, living in temporary structures.

Nowadays, the structures are often built in backyards or at synagogues. The ones I grew up with were generic pop-up cubes with tarp walls and decorations of plastic fruit and paper chains hanging from the ceiling. They're not necessarily conducive to deeper spiritual experiences.

So there's reason to be excited about the sukkah at Georgetown. Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the director of the D.C. university's Jewish chaplaincy, commissioned Brooklyn-based architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan to build a sukkah with flair.

It's sleek, contemporary and — as a Jewish person who's seen dozens of them in her lifetime, I can say this with confidence — really, really cool.

It's a multiplatform structure void of 90-degree angles, with a spider web of tangled string and angular wood planks for walls. It's also fully collapsible, to store away at the end of the holiday and easily reconstruct next fall.

Sitting in the middle of campus, the re-imagined sukkah is part of an effort to prompt conversation about an age-old tradition, Gartner says. "I wanted it to be modern and not something from back in the day that we've all evolved away from," she says.

Three years ago, Grosman and Bryan won the "people's choice" award in a design competition called Sukkah City. About 550 teams responded to the challenge of creating innovative designs within the rigorous constraints of Jewish law.

For example, a sukkah has to have at least two completed walls and one incomplete wall, built to withstand a heavy wind. The roof has to be made out of organic material detached from the ground — often small branches or bamboo reeds — providing more shade than sun during the day and allowing stars to be seen at night. It can be built on a boat. It cannot be built under a tree.

The rules are supposed to evoke feelings of transience by leaving your stable house for a structure that's exposed to the elements. It's a kind of "ritualized homelessness," says Jason Hutt, whose documentary Sukkah City premiered in New York on Sunday. The holiday is about appreciating nature and understanding the impermanence of life.

Sukkah City's judges chose 12 designs that embodied these ideas to be built in New York City's Union Square Park.

The result was stunning.

One structure featured glass walls and a single giant log on top. Another was shaped like a cocoon, large enough to walk in and made out of woven wood, like a basket. Grosman and Bryan had a spherical design made out of an explosion of marsh grass.

And they were all kosher by traditional standards, says Joshua Foer, the competition's co-creator and author of Moonwalking With Einstein.

"This thing has been built every fall for 3,000 years," Foer says, but "there's no blueprint or building plan. Rather, there is a set of rules that is open to interpretation."

The reinterpreted versions are clearly captivating Jews around the country. Washington University in St. Louis held a Sukkah City of its own in 2011. Grosman and Bryan, before signing up with Georgetown, were commissioned to build another one-of-a-kind sukkah for a Brooklyn synagogue two years ago. This week, the Oregon Jewish Museum in Portland is holding an exhibit subtitled "Ancient Tradition + Contemporary Design."

The new sukkah has been a hit among students at Georgetown, Gartner says. "I wanted it to embody the idea that Judaism is alive and evolving and modern."

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