Our Pop Culture Sukkah –

It is an honor to have our family’s Sukkah highlighted through the work of Judah S. Harris. I’ve known Judah for over a decade, since the year in which he covered one of the March of the Living trips on which I led a group. He is one of the foremost photojournalists covering the Jewish scene.

Below are Judah’s reflections on our Sukkah. While he and I are not in complete agreement as to the relationship between Jewish and general culture, his article reflected both his views and mine with respect and understanding.
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Elvis in the Sukkah: Israeli and American Pop Culture on Long Island
[by Judah S. Harris]
When I pulled up to his house last year, Jewish Educator Rabbi Arnie Samlan was just finishing hosting a lunch in his sukkah for his staff from the local Board of Jewish Education. Like many of the neighbors’ holiday dwellings, his is built on the back wood deck, feet from the dining room and maybe just a few more steps from the kitchen. But unlike most of the neighbors, a distinct camouflage tarp wraps around the sukkah frame at the Samlan home.
This is not an attempt to hide the sukkah dwelling in the residential environs (I found it with no difficulty), but rather fit in with the overall theme amplified inside. Stand under the bamboo-mat and you’ll notice that the Samlan’s sukkah decorations are of a somewhat different nature: a collection of iconography, memorable sights and signage from Israeli and American pop culture. Responding to a post I had placed online last year, in search of some “interesting” sukkahs in the area to photograph, Rabbi Samlan itemized for me in an email his special collection:
  • Hebrew/Israeli Budweiser and Sprite banners
  • American flag banners (purchased for the chag just after 9-11)
  • an inflatable Budweiser blimp and a huge inflatable banana
  • a Chinese paper dragon
  • a sign from the Elvis Inn on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway
  • a no parking sign for Wing Wan (a local kosher eatery)
  • a stray Harley Davidson sticker
  • and lighting which includes string lights of pink flamingoes, Coca-Cola lights, spotted cows and electric guitar lights

Most of us would agree, that camouflage, as a design pattern, is by now also part of the realm of pop culture. I don’t wear it, but I see people who do. They’re not fighters, just making a statement, and so is Arnie Samlan, reflecting his affinities as well as the Jewish lives of our generation.

Samlan points out that “Charles Silberman, in his book A Certain People, wrote about the move from a generation that was exceedingly self-conscious about its place as Jews in American society to one of growing comfort with expressing Jewish pride in America.”

But Samlan feels that we’ve gone further than just feeling comfortable about exhibiting our Jewishness in the American exile: “Where once, Jewish educators and rabbis emphasized contrasts between the values and culture of Judaism versus those of America, Jews today are not focused on those ‘conflicts,’ but seek a Jewishness in which their American lives and their Jewish lives are seamlessly integrated.”

“Integration” is one of those loaded words. We try to facilitate it in the workplace, in the family, and certainly in our individual selves. But there are limits. Oil and water don’t mix well, so we also call upon words like “blend” and “balance” to address the disparate elements – and influences – in our lives.

Tour the the Samlan sukkah and you’ll see some totally Jewish iconography too: the B’ruchim Ha-ba’im welcome, and the lulav and etrog and shivat ha-minim (Seven Species) plastic signs that are manufactured in China but sold peddler-style outside of Meal Mart or some similar establishments on the bustling market days in our neighborhoods pre-holiday.

Samlan’s decorations are a strong comment. There exist highly concentrated amounts of cultural influence – Jewish and non-Jewish – in all of our lives, even if we don’t advertise it so blatantly in our sukkah.

“If an Elvis sign from Israel, a Hebrew Budweiser sign, and Harley stickers are a bit humorous,” says Samlan – adding that this is one form of “Serve God through Joy” (Psalms 100:2) – “the underlying thinking reflects a deep truth about America’s Jews today.”

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My thanks to Judah for allowing me to post his article on my blog. To see more of his work and to sign up for his email list, go to http://www.judahsharris.com/ .

Chag Sameach!

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