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For his first sukka, thinking outside the box
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For his first sukka, thinking outside the box

Henry Grosman enters a design competition for the humble booth

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A rendering of Fractured Bubble by Henry Grosman, one of 12 finalists in an international sukka competition that attracted over 600 entries from 43 countries. Photo courtesy Henry Grosman
A rendering of Fractured Bubble by Henry Grosman, one of 12 finalists in an international sukka competition that attracted over 600 entries from 43 countries. Photo courtesy Henry Grosman

Forget everything you know about sukka design. Forget the wooden slats, the PVC pipe frame, the canvas rectangles forming the sides, the branches for a roof.

Now picture a sphere, fractured into three so it opens, with windows not up to the sky but providing views out all around. Covered with marsh grass, the sphere has 100 “windows” woven into the structure.

That sukka, “Fractured Bubble,” created by Henry Grosman, originally from West Orange, with his design partner Babak Bryan of Brooklyn, is one of 12 finalists in the architecture competition Sukkah City: NYC 2010.

Launched by journalist Joshua Foer (brother of author Jonathan Safran Foer) together with Roger Bennett, a cofounder of Reboot, the competition reaches its climax this week. All 12 finalists will exhibit their unique takes on the classic Sukkot booths Sept. 19-20 in Union Square in New York City.

The contest, organized by Reboot along with Union Square Partnership, attracted over 600 entries from 43 countries.

“Our goal was to take the sukka, a structure that has fallen off the radar of many American Jews, with all these incredible, wonderful, strange rules and put the idea to the world’s most talented architects and designers and see what happened,” said Foer in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut. He was “shocked” by the huge response.

He hopes the competition can transform the look of the sukka, and, “for Jews who have never built a sukka, I hope they might look at it with fresh eyes.”

The sukka is a temporary structure that is intended to remind Jews of the huts their ancestors lived in while journeying in the desert for 40 years. A kosher sukka must have at least two-and-a-half walls and must be open to the sky and thatched with organic materials.

As soon as Grosman heard about the competition, he wanted to enter, for the same reason as many non-Jews: It was an architectural challenge. “I wouldn’t have voted myself most likely to build a sukka after high school,” Grosman, 35, said over cold-cut sandwiches recently at Hobby’s Deli in Newark.

He had the “general gist” of the holiday, he said, from his days growing up at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, where his mother is still a member. But he had a steep learning curve for all the rules. He compared his starting point to that of someone who thinks kashrut simply means not eating pork. “That’s kind of a big one, but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

And he knew the project required some serious thought.

“We came up with the idea that the sukka is really a bubble,” he said. “If you think about a bubble, a bubble separates inside from outside, and that’s it. In making that separation, all of a sudden if you’re on the inside you can see the outside in a new way purely because you’re in a place called inside. And it’s ephemeral.”

He also views the sukka as a place to gather “with the people you are closest to on the planet.”

Fractured Bubble eradicates the distinction between walls and ceiling, using the marsh grass known as phragmites for both. Its windows look out, rather than up, in a nod to the urban location.

“You’re never going to really see stars in New York City,” said Grosman. “But what you see if you love the city is all the things that are out. Perhaps it’s a very secular notion of spiritual. But I think that’s part of the dialogue about the sukka and what it means as a spiritual structure.”

Grosman and Bryan’s was among a handful of entries that needed no tweaking to pass muster with the contest’s rabbinical adviser, Doni Passow, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Grosman was pleased, in a mischievous sort of way. “That’s like the most kosher thing I’ve ever done,” he quipped.

Spiritual challenge

Over time, the project became another kind of challenge for Grosman. “It’s really has forced me to look at a lot of things — to examine what I think about a lot of things relative to Judaism.”

Grosman, a resident of Long Island City, identifies himself as a “standard-issue New York City secular Jew.”

“Judaism is very much part of my identity, but…I’m still trying to figure out how that is,” he said.

Grosman’s Jersey — and design — roots run deep. His maternal grandfather, Harold Glucksman, was a prominent architect who designed a synagogue in Deal and the high school building of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth. Glucksman started out in Newark, moved to Irvington and then eventually to Union. He was president of American Institute of Architects NJ and cofounded the architectural firm Glucksman and Guzzo, now Guzzo & Guzzo Architects, in Lyndhurst.

Grosman, who works part-time for Leeser Architecture in New York City, also teaches part-time at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture. He took advantage of the school’s “Fab Lab,” its high-tech fabrication laboratory, to construct Fractured Bubble’s frame. Three NJIT former students are doing most of the actual construction.

Although Foer was not among the judges, he said of Fractured Bubble, “Clearly it’s a beautiful structure.”

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