JERUSALEM (RNS) When architects planned the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Jerusalem, they designed it with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, in mind.
The hotel has an atrium with a retractable roof as well as large, unobstructed patios to accommodate sukkahs, temporary structures Jews are commanded to dwell in during the holiday. In Israel the holiday, which began Sunday (Oct. 16), is observed for seven days, everywhere else for eight.
The hotel’s sukkahs “are functional, beautiful and adhere to the strictest Jewish law,” said Noa Kirshberg, the hotel’s head sukkah designer, as she watched workers attaching decorations to the atrium sukkah’s roof.
Sukkot is a biblical holiday that recalls the ancient Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert after they fled Egypt, and the huts farmers built when they brought in the harvest.
Although Orthodox Jews around the world celebrate the festival, in the U.S. they are hard to spot outside Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, said Heidi Leifer, an American who is spending Sukkot in Jerusalem with her family.
“Here it’s the norm and they’re everywhere,” said Leifer. “It’s very festive and makes you feel connected to the holiday.”
The holiday, which both secular and religious Israelis celebrate, is so ubiquitous that almost every kosher Israeli restaurant and Jewish-owned mall constructs a sukkah for its customers.
An entire industry has grown up around the holiday. Supermarkets sell traditional foods such as pomegranates and honey cake, and foldable tables, battery-operated lights and chairs to accommodate sukkah guests.
Outdoors, vendors hawk metal sukkah frames and festive sukkah drapes and decorations that include photos of renowned rabbis and the colorful tinsel Christians hang on Christmas trees.
Rachel Sarfati, senior curator at the Israel Museum’s Jewish Art and Life Wing, said the practice of building a sukkah goes back more than 2,000 years and Jews have always constructed their sukkahs based on local conditions.
Jews living in Islamic countries used colorful lightweight fabrics for their sukkah walls but, out of respect for Islamic law, displayed no images of people or animals, Sarfati explained. Jews residing in Western countries decorated their sukkahs, usually constructed of wood with retractable roofs to keep out the cold and rain, with vivid scenes from the Bible.
Due to anti-Semitism over the centuries “and especially in Europe,” Jews tended to build sukkahs in the courtyards of their homes or synagogues “so they could not be seen from the outside,” Sarfati said.
In Israel, where it’s still hot in October, hundreds of thousands of families erect the easy-to-build lightweight sukkahs that are sold in many locations. Some religious Jews prefer wooden sukkahs because they like to sleep in them during the entire holiday.
But regardless of the materials used for the walls, “the roof of a sukkah must be made of branches, wood, reeds or leaves, materials that grew in the ground,” said Yosef Friedman, a rabbi of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. In Israel people often use palm fronds.
Additionally, Friedman said, a sukkah “can’t be built under trees or anything else that could obstruct the sky.”
Instructions on how to build a sukkah come straight from the Torah, the rabbi said, and are intended to remind Jews that they are in the hands of God. There are also those who see in the fragile structures an opportunity to recognize the suffering of refugees and other homeless people.
Kirshberg said she and her team from Yarok Yarok Events Design began planning the Waldorf Astoria’s sukkahs almost a year ago and began to build them three weeks before the start of the holiday.
“It takes 30 workers, half from my team, half from the hotel’s, to complete the work,” she said as workers hung hundreds of artificial grape clusters from the sukkah’s ceiling so it would resemble a lush vineyard.
Kirshberg said the decorations, which can descend from the ceiling only so many inches according to Jewish law, are waterproof, in case it rains before the hotel can close the retractable roof until the shower passes.
“There are many rules to follow to ensure the sukkahs are kosher,” Kirshberg said. “The rabbi follows us everywhere.”
Although she is not religiously observant, Kirshberg said: “I believe in God. Sitting in a sukkah is a mitzvah, a commandment and it feels good to help hundreds of people fulfill this mitzvah.”
(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)