SUKKAHS - WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN
Head southwest across aptly-named Division Avenue on the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and you enter what is, in some respects, another nation. While still technically part of greater Williamsburg—painfully reduced to a land of PBR and fixies in current neighborhood stereotyping—this area is much better known simply as Hasidic Williamsburg. The sub-neighborhood is roughly bounded by Division Ave., Broadway, Heyward St., and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It is home to the largest Hasidic Jewish sect in the world, the Satmars, and almost no one else. Pass through, as I often do by bike, and you will know you are no longer in the Brooklyn of contemporary fame: the hodgepodge of brownstones and brick apartment buildings may look familiar, but the Yiddish-plastered school buses likely do not.
Beyond the language, the side curls, furry hats, and long, black coats worn no matter the season, I find the adaptations the Hasidim enact on the built environment—housing often constructed prior to their settlement in the area following World War II—to be far more curious.
These are most conspicuous during Sukkot, the Jewish holiday which takes its name from the sukkah, a temporary dwelling with a thatched roof that, according to biblical history, is erected in honor of the “booths” that provided shelter for the Israelites following their escape from Egypt. The true origin of the celebration likely stretches farther back than the Exodus: Sukkot incorporates many aspects of an ancient harvest festival. For eight days and seven nights (this year beginning on sundown of Sept. 18th and ending at nightfall on the 25th), those who observe the holiday eat and sometimes sleep in the sukkah, celebrating through song, storytelling, and satiation.
I always know when Sukkot is on the horizon: a backyard I overlook from my fire escape is cleared of overgrowth for its only occupation of the year, and sukkah construction begins—power saws and drills sometimes whirring until 1 AM. A new layer of buildings is added across Hasidic Williamsburg, the density of the city causing plywood structures to spill into the street from the front of synagogues and yeshivas. The main markers of buildings constructed, or adapted, by the Hasidim are also put to their intended use: the large balconies that sprout haphazardly from often-dull facades become platforms for sukkahs. Where these balconies are in short supply, a long skinny hut occupies the iconic Brooklyn stoop.
While the orthodox enclave is firmly embedded in contemporary Brooklyn, a mainstay in its narrative of diversity and idiosyncrasy, it also operates apart and often by its own rules. Some of these structures may not fully comply with New York City building code, but as with many things in the community, the constructions are intended to abide by a higher law. And while a sukkah must abide by precise parameters—it must be a temporary structure, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to fit a table, and have a roof of organic materials that provides shade but lets you see the stars—this code allows ample space for reinterpretation, producing a diverse array of sukkah styles. Some appear ready-made, others cobbled together from an array of materials, and a few stand out for their relative luxury. Whatever the style, the concentration of this ritualistic intervention in the urban fabric is a welcome site each year, as is the replacement of the noise of construction with the hubbub of ceremony wafting through my window.
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Jonathan Tarleton is a State Guide to New York. He was schooled in Georgia and North Carolina before moving on to denser pastures in Brooklyn. He currently helps out at Urban Omnibus where he researches and writes about the policy, art, peculiarities, and movements that make New York City so enticingly combative. He likes to be outside and to make things, preferably concurrently. Follow him on Tumblr at jttarleton.tumblr.com and find more of his NYC field trips at Urban Omnibus.