Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Sky Art Sukkah Is Not a Japanese Building


My students at the college I headed in the Negev helped me tie four mega-tzitzit from ship rope and paint one strand skywater blue. We stuffed these 30-foot long tzitzit into a four specially make canvas bags to be flown to Germany by Lufthansa. They would hang from the corners of a giant habitable talit on the street in front of the BMW Museum in Munich.  It would be my art installation for the third international “Sky Art Exhibition.”

Since my wife’s entire extended family from Holland were murdered by the Germans, I was reluctant to accept an invitation to participate in an exhibition in the city in which Hitler got his start and at a museum across the road from the Olympic Village where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists nearly 30 years before 9/11.  However, reading the article on Munich in Encyclopedia Judaica changed my mind.  The enthusiastic support of Munich’s citizens for Hitler was no new phenomenon.

“In the second half of the 13th century Munich appears to have had a sizable Jewish community; the Jews lived in their own quarter and possessed a synagogue, ritual bath, and a hospital.  On October 12, 1285, in the wake of a blood libel, 180 Jews who had sought refuge in the synagogue were burnt to death.”

The anti-Semitic nightmare continued.  Munich’s Jews were murdered as scapegoats for the plague in 1348, and all the Jews were expelled from Bavaria for the next three centuries in 1442.  To harass the Jews during the 18th century, the Munich authorities make it illegal to build a sukkah, the traditional hut built for one week each year as a reminder of the Israelites’ desert dwellings during their exodus from Egypt   When I looked in my calendar and saw that the opening of “Sky Art ‘83” fell during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when each family builds a sukkah to celebrate this joyous holiday, I agreed to participate if the City of Munich would support my building a sukkah at the entrance to the museum.  A sukkah is sky art; Jewish tradition requires that stars in the night sky be visible through gaps in its roof.  I would design a fringed hut, a giant talit sporting four mega-tzitzit with blue strands linking sky to sea.

The holiday of Sukkot is the culmination of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals in the biblical narrative.  Pesach (Passover) celebrates the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot celebrates receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, and Sukkot celebrates reaching the Promised Land.  Pesach and Sukkot exhibit powerful elements of visual culture that are lacking in Shavuot which commemorates the Israelites encounter with the invisible/infinite/eternal author of the Torah.  Pesach is celebrated by eating matzah and participating in an intergenerational performance art event called a sederSukkot is celebrated by holding four species of plants together to symbolize honoring the different personality types that together make up the Jewish people.  We also move out of our comfortable houses for one week into fragile huts opened to sky and to our neighbors where we eat and sometimes sleep according to the biblical prescription in Leviticus 23:39-43:

“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you harvest the land’s grain, you shall celebrate a festival to God for seven days.  You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a citron tree, the frond of a date palm, twigs of myrtle, and brook willows; and you shall rejoice before God for seven days…. During these seven days you shall live in huts (sukkot).  Every citizen of Israel shall dwell in huts so that future generations will know that I had the Israelites live in huts when I brought them out of Egypt.” 

Days before the holiday of Sukkot, I arrived at Munich airport.  I presented the uniformed German agent with the menorah on my Israeli passport and was offered free tourist maps of Munich in a dozen different languages.  I chose the Hebrew map.  The City of Munich annihilated its Jewish population and then published a map in Hebrew. I never saw Hebrew maps of New York, Los Angeles, or Miami where hundreds of thousands of Jews live today. This Kafkaesque encounter at the Munich airport continued when I was introduced to the city’s charming Director of Culture who greeted me in Hebrew.  She had learned to speak Hebrew as a volunteer at a kibbutz in Israel where she lived and worked to repent for the sins of her grandfathers.  When I arrived at the BMW museum I found Bavarian pine planks, the same planks used to build the barracks at Dachau death camp, piled on the sidewalk in front of the museum waiting for me to build the sukkah.  BMW had contributed the wood and sent its carpenters to help me erect the hut.  Unfortunately, they refused do anything when they learned that I had no blueprints.  It made no difference that I had an accurate drawing of my fringed sukkah that I had made for the exhibition catalog.  It didn’t help when I explained that as the designer, I could stand there and direct the construction.  “No blueprints! No building!” was their response.

Two other artists overheard my hour-long discussion with the German carpenters and offered to help me build the sukkah.  Uri Levy, a systems artist from MIT, and Doron Gazit, and Israeli balloon artist, helped me. As we started to build the sukkah, a Japanese artist passed by and offered to help.  Tsutomo Hiroi, Japan’s greatest kitemaker who would fly his giant dragons in the Bavarian sky, was the most skilled carpenter of the four of us.  He helped us build an elegant and strong structure.  As we worked, Hiroi stood inside the sukkah, looked around at it, and chanted, “Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building. Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building.”  He saw its resemblance to the delicate geometries of rice-paper covered wooden frameworks found in traditional Japanese dwellings.   I unsuccessfully tried to convince him that we were building a Jewish building to look like a giant striped prayer shawl.  When the sukkah was completed and we hung the mega-tzitzit from the four corners of the structure, he was willing to accept that we had built an Asian building.  Israel is on the west coast of Asia while Japan is on its east coast.


The next year, I marked the parentheses of Asia by exchanging sand from the beach in Tel Aviv with sand from the beach at the fishing village of Chikura that I visited with Hiroi.  I photographed a parenthesis mark that I etched in the damp beach sand with a stick near the surf line at the Pacific Ocean. I filled the etched arc with yellow Tel Aviv sand.  I flew back to Tel Aviv to etch a matching parenthesis mark in the sand at the Mediterranean shore that I filled with black volcanic sand that I had brought to Israel from Chikura.  I make a serigraph from the photographs showing the set of two parentheses on stripes of Israel’s sky, surf, and sand facing stripes of Japan’s sky, surf, and sand.  The “Parentheses of Asia” serigraph is in the collections of the Emperor of Japan, an oceanographer, and the President of Israel.

When we sat in the sukkah, we saw sky between the wooden roof slats that cast shadow stripes on the floor.  Jewish tradition requires that the sukkah roof, although open to the sky, give more shade than sunlight.  The Hebrew word for “shade” tzel is related to the word for “salvation” and “rescue” hatzalah.  The protective shade in the desert provided by the sukkah gave the Israelites life-granting refuge from the relentless sun while fleeing from Egyptian bondage.  Just as the sukkah saved us with its shade, so when we don a talit pulling it over our heads, we compare it to divine wings casting a protective shadow on us like the wings of an eagle covering eaglets.  Sukkah and talit are conceptually linked.


We sat and ate in the sukkah around a table that I constructed from a clear plastic cylinder holding two discs, one as the tabletop and the second floating midway between the top and the ground.  On this second disc, I spread earth flown from Israel to hover over the ground casting an ellipsoid shadow on the sukkah floor.  My idea for creating a shadow-making table came from my realization that the final two Hebrew letters of eretz yisrael, the Land of Israel, spell the word for “shadow” tzeL.   Resting in the center of the of disc of earth from the Holy Land was an etrog, the beautiful fruit of the citron tree, one of the four species set by the Bible for celebrating Sukkot, the holiday called the “Season of Our Rejoicing” in the liturgy.

After the sukkah was standing, tzitzit attached, and the cylindrical table ready for guests, I rode the tram back to my hotel with several other artists participating in “Sky Art “83.”  As the tram passed fair grounds with rows of barn-like beerhalls (each sponsored by a different beer company), the other artists persuaded me to join them in leaving the tram to experience Munich’s Octoberfest.  We entered the nearest beerhall.  A powerful sudsy aroma hovered over long tables surrounded by blowsy folk in woodsy Bavarian costumes toting enormous steins of beer singing in tune to the up-pa-pa rhythms of a five-piece polka band.  As we found seats and were served the sponsor’s beer, a new tune began and the entire crowd began to sing out loudly in cadenced unison simultaneously raising their beer steins up high.  It looked like a movie set for a period film.  The period image that came to mind in horror was my childhood memory of newsreel films of vast crowds raising their arms high together shouting out as one, “Heil Hitler!”  I could see Munich’s citizens cheering Hitler as he proclaimed the Nazi revolution during his “Beer Hall Putsch.” This merging of individuals into an overwhelming oneness that submerges individuality was an altogether different togetherness than I had just experienced building the sukkah with Horoi, Uri, and Doron.

I closed my eyes and saw the plaza before the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Hundreds of people are praying there at all times of the day.  They do not converge at any point to chant their prayers together, as an army of worshipers might do.  There are no fixed times for services where everyone could join together in one large assembly.  Instead, Jews form ad hoc minyanim (prayer quorums).  As soon as ten men find themselves together, they begin the prayer service as a few others join them.  Dozens of services, each beginning spontaneously can be seen simultaneously.  People float in and out of the scene coming together in small groups of strangers who are suddenly spiritually linked for half an hour or so.  They never find themselves submerged in an overwhelming oneness that diminishes individual expression.

Marking the opening of the “Sky Art ‘83” exhibition, an international sky art conference was held at which I was invited to deliver the keynote address.  My talk, “Higher than Sky,” revolved around a Hassidic tale in which Hassidim tell about their great rebbe who ascends to heaven during the ten days between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  A skeptic comes to their town and hears them lovingly tell about how their rebbe ascends to heaven in order to plead for the forgiveness for all humanity’s transgressions in a face-to-face encounter with God.  The skeptic confronted a group of the Hassidim: “How can you think such ridiculous nonsense?  According to tradition, even Moses fell short of such a face-to-face encounter.”  They responded, “If you knew our rebbe, you too would recognize his greatness.”  One morning in synagogue, the skeptic sees the rebbe who was seated in the front next to the ark suddenly disappear.  He ran out of the synagogue and spied the rebbe walking rapidly walking down the street.  The skeptic discretely trailed the rebbe and saw him enter his home to emerge a short time later dressed in workman’s clothes with an ax in his belt and a rope draped over his shoulder.  The rebbe walked to the edge of his village where the forest began, chopped down a small tree, cut off its branches, tied all the wood together with his rope, and entered a shack with the bundle of wood on his back.  Peering through a window, the skeptic saw a frail old woman in bed and the rebbe putting the wood in her stove, peeling potatoes and putting up a stew to cook, changing her bedding, and getting down on his knees to scrub the floor.  He then spied the rebbe walking back home, replacing his work clothes with an elegant black brocade robe and a white woolen talit, and returning to the synagogue through a back door.  The skeptic quietly slipped into the synagogue to find the Hasidim talking ecstatically about their rebbe’s return from his ascent to heaven.  The skeptic added, “If not higher than that!”

The skywater blue strand of the tzitzit flowing from the corners of a talit symbolizes sky flowing down to earth as a reminder that acts of kindness are the highest expression of human values.  Being down on one’s knees scrubbing the floor for an old invalid woman is the way to reach higher than sky.   Moreover, the sukkah symbolizes all human beings living in peace with each other while celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, the “Season of Our Rejoicing.”  All people were invited into our Munich sukkah to share our joy.  This invitation follows from the biblical invitation to all nations of the world from Zecharia 14:16-19, which is read in synagogues on Sukkot.  The prophet Zecharia teaches that if all the people of the world would live for just one week in fragile huts open to their neighbors and to the sky, then peace with each other and nature would follow, thereby ushering in the Messianic Age.

Based upon my book The Future of Art in a Postdigtial Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) See photos of this Sky Art project at

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
Related Topics
Related Posts