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Living a full Jewish life

The temporary art installations of Sukkahwood reflect just how differently people connect to the Divine

Mr. Steinberg was making aliyah to Israel.

When one makes aliyah, new immigrants get to bring a certain amount of items to Israel without paying for customs or duties on them.

When he got to Israel, he had seven refrigerators with him.

The customs officer was totally surprised: “Why do you need so many?”

Mr. Steinberg confidently remarked that he kept kosher and needed three refrigerators — one for meat, one for milk, and another for pareve (neither milk or meat).

“That explains three. But why four more?”

“I also need three for Passover.”

The customs officer nodded his head reluctantly, rolling his eyes in frustration, thinking that Mr. Steinberg’s odd request was another attempt to take advantage of the system.

“But why the seventh?” grumbled the customs agent.

“Because, sometimes, I eat a little trief.”

* * *

For the past five months, my wife and I have been working hard to put together an event in Northern Manhattan called Sukkahwood. It challenges artists and designers to produce temporary art installations in the form of a Sukkah, complying with the various rules of building a Sukkah in Jewish tradition, while at the same time inspiring a creative artistic streak.

The fundraising, the phone calls to partner organizations, working with the NYC Parks Department, the call for artists, the meeting with artists, and everything else that comes with a huge event like this mean that we have been living and breathing this event for almost five months now. So it is not surprising then that I have had a lot of time to think about its lessons for us.

Since we moved up here to Inwood, Manhattan, I have always wanted to put on our version of this community arts festival since I thought the idea was incredible. It was a new spin on Jewish tradition that encouraged artistic expression, but challenged those same artists to maintain a fidelity to Jewish law.

And the response has been tremendous. From anyone to artists and local and city arts organizations to Jews committed to halachic observance and regular people who just love Jewish culture, we have seen only support and love for the idea.

Why should that be so?

I think the lesson is simple and something that can really be a great High Holiday, if not a life lesson for all of us.

The biggest issue people have with Judaism and those who practice it is inconsistency. Whether we like it or not, people do judge Judaism by the Jews who practice it.

In my opinion, it is because people expect Judaism to be an all-encompassing experience that imbues everything we do with a sense of purpose and direction. People expect the kosher-eater to be nice to others because if he or she really believes that G-d cares about the food that goes in our stomach, something which is hard for us mere mortals to understand its spiritual impact, then something which is even more revealed to us, like not cheating in business, must be important too.

By bringing Judaism to life via art, we show that it is vibrant, exciting, and, yes, even fun. G-d is infinite and unlimited and it is not surprising then that every Jew and really every person has a multitude of opportunities to connect to Him.

We are all obligated to learn Torah and pray and give charity, but a painter too or a poet or a singer can inspire themselves and others to serving G-d through their talents. In our case, we are showing that the laws of a Sukkah are not a dry list of do’s and dont’s relegated to the past, but something that is tangible and real in our lives.

When we stand before G-d Almighty on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur declaring His Kingship in the world, what are we really saying?

That every one of my talents, struggles, ideas, actions that I take, or thoughts that I have belong to You. None of them, even my negative parts, are devoid of meaning. They can be used and transformed into something positive.

Many people asked me when we did this project, “Do they really have to be kosher?” or “Can’t it just be in the spirit of a sukkah?”

When they said that, I knew they missed the whole point of the event.

Sukkahwood is an attempt to show that a commitment to G-d actually makes even the most mundane endeavors meaningful. It doesn’t just make it more meaningful spiritually, but it also makes it actually better art.

Our lives are a work of art — an attempt to make everything ultimately meaningful and supremely G-dly.

Sukkahwood will be held on Sunday, October 8th, the second day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, in Inwood, Manhattan at the intersection of 215th street and Indian Road. It is a free event with more than 17 sponsors and partners including a kosher food truck, a DJ, and great entertainment for people of all ages. More information about the event can be found at www.sukkahwood.com.

About the Author
Herschel Hartz is a graduate of Yeshiva University's RIETS rabbinic program as well as a degree in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Originally from outside of Washington DC, Herschel went to Brandeis University and became interested in Jewish growth there. During his time at Yeshiva University, he started running Jewish events in nearby Inwood, which according to the UJA at the time, had one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in New York City. Chabad of Inwood is the only organization totally devoted to growing the Jewish community in Inwood, Manhattan. For the past five years, along with his wife Raiza Malka and his daughter Yisraela Chava, Rabbi Herschel, as he is affectionately known, has seen and experienced a lot in the Jewish world and has met and talked with many Jews from all types of backgrounds and situations.
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