Night had fallen the Tuesday before Sukkot in Union Square, between 14th and 17th streets in New York City. The usual crowds of protesters, street hawkers and tourists were starting to thin out. In one corner of the large plaza, however, the action was just beginning.
Rabbi Yaakov Bankhalter was directing a team of artists who were painting birds and clouds onto a wooden structure. They were decorating an oversized sukkah, in which Bankhalter has been serving hundreds of congregants, friends and curious people heaping plates of holiday food alongside Torah thoughts every Sukkot since 2005.
A sukkah is a hut in which Jews eat, drink, pray and socialize every fall during the weeklong Sukkot harvest festival. Being in the temporary shelter with only flimsy foliage above works to connect Jews to their past, as well as brings awareness to human vulnerability and to nature.
“This is a very colorful, dynamic area, and we wanted to spice up our sukkah,” says Bankhalter, who co-directs the Chabad Loft on 5th Avenue with his wife, Yosefa. So the rabbi recruited a team of artists to paint the sukkah with holiday-related ideas.
“We began with clouds all around the top,” explains one of the artists who goes by the name “Dems,” representing the clouds of glory that protected the Israelites in the desert on their way out of Egypt. “We then continued with peaceful themes, such as rainbows, doves and other images that give a really nice calming effect. It’s fun to see the clouds, and then the patterns and colors.”
An Emphasis on Joy
While Dems and his fellows just painted their sukkah this year, Chicago-area cartoonist David Sokoloff illustrated his first mobile sukkah in 1981 in Kansas City, Mo., at the behest of Rabbi Yosef Posner, then serving as a Chabad emissary there with his wife Zeesy and their growing family.
“I was working with Hallmark, designing cards,” recalls Sokoloff, “and I was a frequent guest at the Posner home. I was happy to reciprocate and contribute what I could artistically.
“I developed an appreciation for the Chassidic emphasis on joy, so I used bright colors in my artwork on the sukkah mobile and whatever I do for Chabad. I also enjoyed animating characters—putting faces on lulavim and etrogim to give them a joyous feeling.”
Shortly thereafter, the Posners relocated to the Chicago area and opened a Chabad center in Skokie, Ill. Sokoloff followed, settling in the West Rogers Park neighborhood.
Painted sukkahs have been a feature in Skokie, Ill., since the 1980s.
In 1991, Posner again built a sukkah mobile on the back of a pickup truck. He drove it around town so that those without a sukkah of their own would be able to observe the holiday by eating on the thatch-covered bed of the truck.
Eight years later, the needs of observant business people prompted him to place a sukkah in the Park of Civic Pride on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Oakton Street in downtown Skokie, so that people working in the area could go there for lunch during the holiday, when all meals must be eaten inside a sukkah. It also serves as an educational exhibit for passersby, with its bright signs and written information about the holiday.
Over the years, two trailer-backed sukkahs were added to the fleet. They were built by the rabbi’s son, Yochanan Posner, who joined his parents in 2004 as the events and education director of Skokie Chabad.
“They are much bigger; we can seat parties of close to 20 people around folding tables in the larger sukkah trailer at once,” says Posner. “Also, trailers are low enough for the elderly and handicapped to get on to with just a little help. This is important because many of the regulars I visit every year would not be able to get onto the back of a pickup.”
One such person is Mark Greenfield. Posner visits him every year at his print shop on the corner of Niles Center Road and Maine Street.
“It’s wonderful when the rabbi parks the sukkah in our lot every year. We hug each other and then go out to the sukkah for a quick bite to eat. It’s a warm experience for me,” says Greenfield.
The bigger the sukkah, the bigger the canvas.
“I grew up in West Rogers Park and was always aware of the holiday of Sukkot, and even visited the synagogue sukkah when I was a kid, but I never had one of my own,” he continues. “So it’s really special that the sukkah comes to me these days. Look, you can’t beat curbside service—it puts a smile on my face.”
When designing his newest and largest trailer sukkah in 2009. Posner decided the time had come to add some personality to his wheels. “Until then, we had built the walls with wooden paneling, which is pretty but not really attention-grabbing,” he explains. “So I enlisted David’s help to create some whimsical pictures and text to paint on the sides.
“His cartoons were so attractive that we decided to redo our downtown sukkah as well, plastering it with bubble text and funny pictures. Humor is a great medium to teach things people would otherwise not bother learning.”
The story came full circle for Sokoloff and the Posners when Yochanan recently opened up an old family album dating back to the early 1980s back in Kansas City.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he says, “when I found a picture of an old trailer sukkah that my father had built and David had illustrated in 1982. Here we are doing it again, 30 years later.”