Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I have been unable to determine when the tradition began, but dating back at least to the 1960s, an annual contest was held in Jerusalem for the most beautiful sukkah. Shown here are three such awards issued by the Jerusalem municipality.

Certificate signed by Jerusalem Mayor Ish-Shalom to the builder of a beautiful sukkah in Jerusalem (Hoshana Rabbah, 1964).

First, exhibited here is a City of Jerusalem Municipality Certificate of Appreciation issued to Yaakov David Perlin for his “participation in the competition for most pleasant sukkah of 1964 and for his skill and effort in beautifying his sukkah,” signed by Mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom.

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Ish-Shalom (1902-1991) was an Israeli politician and labor leader who, as the Mapai candidate, was elected mayor of Jerusalem on December 16, 1959, and served until 1965. The National Religious party threw its support to the Mapai candidate in return for an agreement that the municipality would tighten Sabbath observance and would regulate Jerusalem’s controversial swimming pool to provide two days of separate bathing for observant Jews.

Born in Lithuania, Ish-Shalom moved in 1923 to British occupied Eretz Yisrael, where his political career began in the Stonecutters’ Union (1935). He helped to build some Jerusalem landmarks, and he rose through the ranks of the Histadrut labor federation, eventually being elected Jerusalem mayor.

Certificate signed by Jerusalem Mayor Kollek to the builder of a beautiful sukkah in Jerusalem (Sukkot, 1978).

Second, exhibited here is a City of Jerusalem Award for “the best decorated Succah” to the “Perlin Elchanan” family signed by Teddy Kollek, as Mayor of Jerusalem, and Yosef Goldschmidt, as Deputy Mayor.

Kollek (1911-2007) was the first mayor of unified Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. Although he won wide acclaim for his dynamic activities to normalize life in both parts of the city, he antagonized observant Jews by taking an anti-religious posture in many issues affecting both Jerusalem and Israel and by seeking to “normalize” life for Arabs. Often seen as a secular international spokesman for Jerusalem, his re-elections to the mayoralty were due, in large part, to the support of East Jerusalem Arabs.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Goldschmidt (1907-1981) made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, where he first worked as a teacher before rising to serve as a supervisor of the Mizrachi school network (1942-1948) and serving as deputy director general of the Ministry of Education and Culture (1952). He was on the National Religious Party list for the 1969 elections and, although he failed to win a seat, he entered the Knesset on December 15 that year as a replacement for Yosef Burg, who had resigned his seat after being given a ministerial post. Goldschmidt himself was made deputy minister of Internal Affairs, but he lost his seat in the 1973 elections, and he became deputy mayor of Jerusalem a year later.

Certificate signed by Jerusalem Mayor Kollek and Andre Chouraqui.

Third, exhibited here is a 1969 City of Jerusalem “Certification of Appreciation,” the inside page of a little two-page award booklet presented to Alexander Rosenthal for “his sukkah that was entered in the most beautiful sukkah competition and which earned a special grade.” It is signed by Mayor Kollek and by Andre Chouraqui, who is listed as chair of the Sukkah Judge’s Committee.

As deputy mayor under Kollek, Chouraqui (1917-2007) was in charge of cultural affairs in Jerusalem. One of the few North African Jewish intellectuals to make aliyah, he was a personal advisor to Ben-Gurion on problems of integrating various Israeli ethnic communities. The author of many respected scholarly works, his most famous – and controversial – book was A Man in Three Worlds (1979), in which he proposed the creation of a federation of the “reunited” lands of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, wherein each ethnic entity would find its national rights guaranteed. He envisioned two freely elected parliaments, Israel and “Ishmael,” to promulgate laws, and Jerusalem, reunited forever, “would be the spiritual center of the reconciled peoples.”

Chagall drawing from Kollek-Chouraqui Sukkah Award (1969).

Also shown here is the cover of the Kollek-Chouraqui award booklet featuring a reproduction of a drawing of a man holding a lulav and etrog by Marc Chagall, which was taken from his wife Bella’s seminal work, Burning Lights.

The youngest of seven children, Bella Chagall (1895-1944) was born to a Chassidic family in Vitebsk, Russia, where she met Marc in 1914 and married him a year later. From the moment they met, Bella instantly became his favorite model and greatest inspiration, and his personal intimate experiences gave rise to many famous depictions of lovers embracing tightly in each other’s arms, enclosed in a magical and mystical ring of love. Even after her death, he continued to depict her and draw inspiration from her; for example, in Anniversary Flowers, he portrays himself sitting before his easel on each anniversary of her death extending his hand to her as he awaits an astral meeting with his lost beloved.

Bella was a talented writer whose literary works include the editing and translation of her husband’s 1922 autobiography, which she translated into French for its first publication years later (Ma Vie, 1931) and which was later translated into English (My Life, 1960). However, her major work was undoubtedly Brenendike Likht (“Burning Lights”), her memoir of her childhood in Vitebsk, the Russian-Jewish market town where she and her husband grew up, in which she warmly reminisces about Jewish family life in pre-Revolutionary Russia and documents her childhood memories in accordance with the festivals and holidays of the Jewish yearly cycle. Her text, accompanied by her husband’s chapter-by-chapter 36 pen and ink drawings, conveys their mutual tenderness and love for the Jewish holidays. Following her untimely death on September 2, 1944, Marc published the book in English in her memory (1946).

In his introduction to the 1947 edition of the book, Marc compared Bella’s words and phrases to “a wash of color over a canvas.” In the introductory chapter, entitled “Heritage,” Bella writes that she still sees memories of her family streaming before her eyes “so near, they could be breathing into my mouth,” even though her old home is dead and gone. Yet, she writes, each surviving member of her family “in place of his vanished inheritance, has taken with him, like a piece of his father’s shroud, the breath of the parental home.” She needs to rescue her fleshless memories, lest they flicker out and die:

My ears begin to sound with the clamor of the shop and the melodies that the rabbi sang on holidays. From every corner, a shadow thrusts out, and no sooner do I touch it than it pulls me into a dancing circle with other shadows . . . I do not know where to take refuge from them. And so, just once, I want very much to wrest from the darkness a day, an hour, a moment belonging to my vanished home.

The book beautifully evokes memories of a lost world, a different time, a town that once was but is no more. Her Sukkot narrative is particularly lovely and haunting:

Marc’s drawing of a sukkah from Bella’s Burning Lights.

The day after Yom Kippur we wait for a messenger from G-d. Surely he must come after our prayers and tears of yesterday!

And then a peasant with a cartful of branches of red fir drives into our courtyard. He overturns his cart. Prickly branches fall down, heaped one upon the other.

The courtyard turns into a forest. There is a smell of tar, of pine. The branches are fresh as just after a rain. Like huge birds at rest the branches lie, and a fragrance comes from them like a song.

If one crawls up on the mountain of branches, it utters a groan and bends underfoot. It one rolls on it, the mountain collapses entirely.

“Why are you trampling the branches?” My brothers come running with outcries. “Do you think it’s hay? Don’t you know it’s for the sukkah?”

They pull the branches from under my feet. Each branch comes up heavily from the ground, shakes itself free with its spikes.

I help to carry the branches into the sukkah, which is not yet ready. Only the walls. Made of long boards, have been set up and nailed. The roof is open. The sky looks in. My brothers climb the ladders, stand on chairs, and hand branches to one another, shaking them as one shakes the Sukkot palm branch.

The branches open up like fans. Soon the sukkah is covered as a head is covered with a cap. It stands in the middle courtyard, alluring and beckoning, like a little house in the woods.

The branches are piled up on it so thickly that no little star from heaven will shine through the dark green. [Author’s comment: Ironically, this would render the sukkah unfit for use because one of the most fundamental conditions for a kosher sukkah is that the stars must be visible through the schach. It is most likely that her childhood recollection was erroneous in this regard, perhaps because, as we will see below, she was not permitted to sit in the sukkah during meals.] Inside the sukkah it is cool and dim. Only through the holes in the walls little patches of light creep through. And the points of light gleam and quiver, trying hard to slip in.

In the middle of the sukkah a long table and benches have been set up. There is no floor. Bare ground is underfoot. The legs of the table and of the benches rest in the damp earth, which sticks to one’s feet.

We do not go out of the sukkah. We imagine that we are in a country house. We stretch out on the benches, pursue and intercept the patches of light that shine through the walls, and with our heads high in the air we gaze at the roof of branches as though it were a sky with stars. We shiver when a drop of dew falls on us.

We intone a song, by way of announcing to everyone that the sukkah is ready, that the holiday has come . . .

The finished sukkah stands waiting a whole day before at last they go to eat in it.

During the day, it has absorbed the odor of pine, its walls and the damp earth underfoot have dried. When evening comes, father and my brothers put on their coats as though preparing to go away. They go to eat supper in the sukkah.

Neither mother nor I nor the cook goes there. The three of us have only been allowed to go up to the door of the sukkah to hear father’s benediction over the kiddish cup.

And the meals are served to those in the sukkah through a little window, as through a hole, one plate after another. My brothers can make believe that the plates with the food come to them straight from heaven.

Do they give a thought to us who have been left in the house?

In the apartment, it is cold. It seems empty, and it feels as if there were no doors or windows. I sit with mother and eat without zest.

“Mother, why have we been left here with the servants, as though we too were servants? What kind of holiday is that, mother?” I keep tormenting her. “Why do they eat apart from us?”

“Ah, my little child, because they’re men,” says mother, sadly, as she eats her piece of cold meat.

Suddenly, the kitchen is in an uproar. The maids run back and forth between the courtyard and the house. “Mistress, it’s beginning to rain!”

“Take the whole meal at once, so that they can say the blessings quickly!” Mother too is upset.

I am glad that it is raining in the middle of supper. For mother and me the holiday is so sad!

Suddenly – bang! – a thunderclap comes. I look through the window to see whether the sukkah has fallen apart. It is flooded with water.

In a trice the branches were soaked through, turned flat and thin. Water drips on the table in the sukkah, it drips from the branches, from the walls. The maids run to and fro with covered plates in their hands. The rain is pattering on the plates, trying to uncover them.

Through the noise of the rain I hear father’s benedictions. My brothers’ high voices merge into the rain.

And, one after the other, with their collars up, they run out of the sukkah. We look at them as though we had not seen them in a long time. They invade the apartment like people coming from another world.

Thus a few days go by. Now the sukkah is taken apart altogether. Board after board is pulled off. The walls are folded up. The roof of branches falls in, breaks up underfoot. The courtyard is filled with little needles.

The sukkah vanishes as if it had never been there . . .

Print of Chagall’s The Feast of the Tabernacles (1916) Gouache and watercolor on paper, 52.3 x 66.5.

Finally, on the theme of Chagall and Sukkot, shown here is a print of the artist’s The Feast of Tabernacles (1916). Around this time, he began to dabble in primitivism, and the effect can be seen particularly clearly in the figures of this painting: reduced to complete profiles or completely frontal images, they move across space, angular and seemingly with no connection with the background. There are no intermediate shades or nuances, since this would not fit the simplicity of the scene, and he renders the sukkah’s roof in the cubist style. Trapped in a cramped apartment in Paris during WWI, the simple rendition of The Feast of the Tabernacles reflects the artist’s emotional state.

Wishing everyone a chag kasher v’sameach!

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.