“Build Yourself a Sukkah!”: How Occupy Judaism Transformed the Movement

Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”637″ height=”424″ />Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).

“We should reoccupy [Zuccotti] and say we’re celebrating Sukkot,” tweeted activist and musician Nathan Leigh, a year ago, as a few thousand took to the streets in Lower Manhattan to mark the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. He’d sarcastically hash-tagged his suggestion #badideas. When asked about it, he explained, “It was a joke with a kernel of truth to it. I’m Jewish, and was thinking about the observance of Sukkot and how it’s a context in which it’s totally legal (or at least permissible) in New York and other cities to occupy a tent in a public space.” A few months later, much as in every recent year, kiosks pouring cider and coffee would stretch down Broadway from East 14th Street, facing flatscreen TVs provided to entertain those camping out for a first shot at Black Friday bargains at the Best Buy opposite Union Square. “It proves that many of the rules that have been drafted against Occupy Wall Street exist to stifle the content or intention of our actions, and not the actions themselves,” Leigh said.

Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”637″ height=”424″ />Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).

The shopping spectacle’s correspondence with the anniversary of the violent eviction of the movement’s encampment from Zuccotti Park makes for a cynical and saddening subtext: In the United States, one can legally gamble one’s mortality against the winter elements for the opportunity to get into debt, just not to get out of it. In making the joke at all, however, Leigh unwittingly stumbled onto what is arguably the movement’s greatest untold story. As OWS and Occupy Sandy activist Rebecca Manski notes, “It was kind of hilarious that the first tent that the police allowed to remain in the park was a sukkah.”

Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”637″ height=”424″ />Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).

Indeed, despite its conspicuous absence from virtually every celebrated origin story in Occupy, alongside the medical tent established by activists in the early weeks of the movement, the first tent to successfully challenge the NYPD ban on structures in Zuccotti was a sukkah replete with a portrait of Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, set up by Dan Sieradski and Occupy Judaism; a project that would go on to function as a sort of unintentional muse to the movement in New York. “The holiday immediately following Yom Kippur is Sukkot – the plural of sukkah,” Sieradski said. “A sukkah is a ritual hut – otherwise known as a tabernacle – that Jews sleep and eat in for a week to commemorate the harvest season in ancient Israel.” He knew cops weren’t letting structures go up in Zuccotti but figured a sukkah might pose a prohibitive public relations obstacle for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD. “The goal was twofold,” he said. “I really wanted to push the Occupy Judaism thing, which was using Jewish ritual as a form of direct action – transforming sacred rites into acts of justice and not just references to ideas of justice – and to see if the religious liberty argument could be used as leverage to help put some shelter over Occupiers’ heads.”

Dan Sieradski in discussion with Orthodox men critical of his activities. (Photo: Joshua Stephens).Dan Sieradski in discussion with Orthodox men critical of his activities. (Photo: Joshua Stephens).

In the process, he enlisted some unlikely support – most notably from Chabad (a Hasidic sect) and a company called PopUp Sukkah, who hardly supported the movement’s politics but donated materials for the sake of supporting religious practice. “I went down to Zuccotti and met with the direct action working group, got the buy-in of the resident Occupiers, who I worried might be ill-affected by an attempt to build a structure, and then rustled up a group of friends and folks, including media and legal observers, and erected the PopUp Sukkah,” Sieradski said. As predicted, the NYPD approached, but opted to avoid the likely blowback of interfering with a Jewish rite, ultimately letting it be. “That’s when I knew we had our opening,” Sieradski said. “A couple of kids tried it. One had theirs taken down; another was able to keep theirs up. So later, in the middle of the night, it started raining. And all of a sudden from the middle of the park you heard, ‘MIC CHECK! MIC CHECK! TONIGHT… WE ARE ALL JEWS! BUILD YOURSELF A SUKKAH TO SLEEP IN!’ And thus, the tent city began. The next day the medical tent went up, and on from there it went.” Occupy-related sukkahs appeared thereafter in Seattle (where ten were arrested in the process), as well as other cities.

Dan Sieradski quotes the Torah on who owns wealth. His talk was the peak experience of the Rosh Hashone gathering of Occupy Judaism.

“One reason that I’m drawn to writing about both religion and radical politics is that they share the characteristic that the claims one makes and the faith one holds in them can shape reality in definitive ways,” said Nathan Schneider, a religious studies scholar and author of the recent book Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. “Not only did my experience studying religious communities help me recognize certain ways the occupation functioned, but the occupation helped me understand how religious movements function; not until seeing the first weeks of Occupy Wall Street do I think I fully understood what the Book of Acts meant when it referred to the early Christians ‘holding all things in common.’ ” In Zuccotti’s case, the Jewish rite of Sukkot was in many ways folded into the movement’s aspirations, becoming something held in common. During a recent second anniversary commemorative walking tour of OWS, accounts of Occupy Judaism’s role in establishing tents was remembered, and according to Schneider, one non-Jewish participant recalled the night that “We all became Jews!”

Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”308″ height=”462″ />Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).“It was very bizarre to encounter [Sieradski] in the chaos of Zuccotti, sitting Yoda-like in his tiny triangular tent,” Rebecca Manski said. “Moving through Liberty Square was a manic episode. Sitting down and focusing with one person felt like tripping. Sitting with [him] often feels like tripping anyway, since he is so madly brilliant and full of endless tangents – so the effect was multiplied.” The unfolding of Occupy Judaism, however, went well beyond the physical structure in the park. Most activists from that time recall other manifestations. Writing for the Israeli left web site +972, during a 2011 visit from Tel Aviv, human rights activist Libby Lenkinski described Occupy Judaism’s Kol Nidre service, attended by more than 1,000, across from Zuccotti, saying, “Because I live in Israel, I have become accustomed to making the choice between religious and progressive, where progressive means secular. There is no option for a progressive expression of spiritual or religious Judaism for me. Certainly not one that also takes place within the context of a community. And certainly not a diverse community of Jewish activists. Tonight I was there.”

“I spent most of my first night in Zuccotti in the sukkah,” Sieradski said. “It rained, and the bamboo that covered my sukkah let all the rain in; I got soaked, and it was awful. Some friends from Jews for Racial & Economic Justice guarded over the sukkah while I went home to get dry and sleep for a bit. The next day, I came back. And within a couple of minutes of being in the park, Brookfield security [the park’s private partner] hands me a notice saying they’re coming into clean out the park and that we have to get everything out.” Rather famously, Bloomberg had collaborated with Brookfield to undermine the movement, under the flimsy pretense of Zuccotti’s cleanliness being of profound import, amidst a city widely regarded as one of the country’s most gritty. It was an absurdity brilliantly lampooned in the opening segment of “Saturday Night Live” later that week. In response, organizers in the park feverishly began sending all bedding and other blankets to be washed, restoring slightly damaged plants, and swabbing down the stone surface of Zuccotti with soapy push-brooms. The objective was twofold: Dispel the depiction of the activists as negligent, dirty and destructive while pre-empting the need for outside intervention on the stated grounds. No one was sure it would work.

A flyer from the original 2011 Yom Kippur service, conducted by Occupy Judaism. (Poster: Occupy Judaism).A flyer from the original 2011 Yom Kippur service, conducted by Occupy Judaism. (Poster: Occupy Judaism).“So the plan becomes, OK, we let them in to clean one part of the park at a time and then move back in [to each part] right afterward. But if they don’t let us back in to the quarter we moved out of, we lock down,” Sieradski said. “We decided to move the sukkah to the center of the park so that if the lockdown happened, everyone would lock down in concentric circles around the sukkah, where I would be inside praying. If the cops wanted to fully empty out Zuccotti, they were going to have to rip a praying Jew out of his sukkah.” Five thousand people descended on Zuccotti that night. Rank-and-file workers from local unions showed up. Families joined. Security patrols were established to evacuate people and minimize injuries should the NYPD stage a raid. In the wee hours of the morning, the city backed down, handing the movement a major victory. “A group from Kolot Chayeinu, the progressive Jewish congregation in Brooklyn, came that morning as well, with their lulavs [palm fronds, a ritual object used on Sukkot], and we celebrated our victory by doing a prayer service together at the sukkah,” Sieradski said.

Five thousand people cramming into the relatively small Zuccotti, however, largely destroyed the sukkah. Sieradski opted to tear it down and begin anew with a sturdier and arguably more confrontational structure, emboldened by the outcome of the prior evening. A farmers’ market tent was brought in to serve as a sukkah for Shabbat. But by then, the NYPD was cued in to the religious nuances of the practice, disqualified the structure for lacking an opening in its “roof” (per ritual orthodoxy) and – amid heated confrontation – tore it down. “Sunday morning I went to Crown Heights and bought a sukkah. I brought it straight to Zuccotti, rustled up another crew, JFREJ, legal observers, and threw the sukkah up,” Sieradski said. “This became the OWS sukkah; the one that stayed up throughout the holiday. And that’s where we did the teach-ins and where folks rotated sleeping. And it’s the one the cops didn’t fuck with.”

Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”637″ height=”424″ />Occupy Judaism action adjacent to Zuccotti Park. (Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).

A few days later, exactly one month into the occupation, Bloomberg held a press conference, declaring that tents were excluded from First Amendment protection. Hours later, a standoff between activists and the NYPD ensued in the park. “The sukkah was the same night as medical tent standoff,” said OWS activist Brendan Burke. “Both [were] clutch moves.” The sukkah’s traditional omission from Occupy’s history is all the more curious, given what followed. “On the second night with the new sukkah, the cops rushed in to take down the Medical Tent,” Sieradski said. “An argument ensued and the folks in the Medical Tent said, ‘If they have a sukkah why can’t we have a tent?!’ So the cops declared, ‘They can’t have that either! It’s coming down next!’ ” OWS activist Michael Pellagatti said, “Out of the blue, spur of the moment, unannounced, Jesse Jackson comes from nowhere to lock arms with the folks running the medical tent.” As the NYPD had just linked the two tents’ fates, countless hours of late-night ’80s satire involving Jesse Jackson, anti-Semitism and Crown Heights’ orthodox community came full circle in a swirl of civil disobedience and potential police violence. Depending on whom one asks, Jackson’s remarks to the NYPD may have involved an expletive. There’s absolute clarity, however, about the fact that he invited the police to take him down with the tents. Sieradski recounts it with a sort of wink, and a bit of alliteration. “With those words, Jesse saved the sukkah,” noting, “It felt like black-Jewish relations in New York City received a spiritual kick in the right direction.”

When reminded of all this, Nathan Leigh expresses a shock at how these events had slipped from his memory and admits it’s probably more the rule than the exception. “I had forgotten that, completely,” he said. “There’s a general ignorance about Jewish customs and traditions in this country. So, the significance of that was most likely lost on many people and thus not picked up as a meme by the media while we still had their undivided attention.” This gap in remembering is not altogether shocking, according to Nathan Schneider. “We’re constantly bombarded with messages in the media that more or less subtly tell us that popular movements don’t matter, so why should we bother remembering them, even if we were a part of them?” he said. “Since many Occupiers were not themselves religious, and often dismissive of religion intellectually, they didn’t really internalize the profound role of religion in the movement.” Andrew Cornell, whose book Oppose and Propose! documents how a group of radical Quakers in Philadelphia popularized the very combination of direct democracy and direct action that has come to characterize the Occupy movement, offers another observation. “Movements usually don’t get academic historical treatments for 30 years. So it’s easier to study movements from many decades ago than those within one’s lifetime,” he notes. “Right now, our movements are not great at teaching more recent history even to new recruits. So new activists get acculturated into norms operating in the left, but they often don’t learn the roots of these practices and ideas.”

(Photo: <a https://www.davidamwilensky.com/ David A.M. Wilensky )” width=”637″ height=”424″ />(Photo: David A.M. Wilensky).

Despite all the drama of Occupy Judaism’s role in establishing the physical occupation of Zuccotti, its legacy may be considerably larger still, and even less recognized. Whatever its broader symbolism, Wall Street is still a physical place; it has spatial coherence. Judaism does not. Whereas occupying Wall Street or Zuccotti implied a physical specificity and borrowed from prior movements’ tactics of seizing physical places and holding them in a sort of ransom for political demands – hence Occupy’s dogged vulnerability to mainstream derision over its aimlessness – occupying a spiritual tradition inheres no such geographic or temporal limits. As turn-of-the-last-century anarchist and sometimes-Jewish mystic Gustav Landauer is famously quoted for pointing out, institutions such as the state represent “a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior,” adding that we dismantle such things by “contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.”

Filmed September 16, 2012. Some highlights toward the end of the Rosh hashanah service at Liberty Plaza, aka Zuccotti Park with a sermon by Dan Sieradski, blowing of the shofar, blessing of the apples and honey and wine. The full-text of the sermon can be found here.

Intentionally or not, Occupy Judaism instigated a shift in the movement’s understanding of its own terms, moving from a tactic with a geographic, tangible terrain to an ongoing reclamation – of spiritual life, or the things of life more generally. The term Occupy quickly found its way in front of reference to innumerable other concepts, institutions and practices: Occupy Marines, Occupy Education, Occupy Love. There’s reason to believe it was deliberate. “So much of what Judaism is about is taking the everyday ordinary – the mundane – and identifying its innate holiness, thus elevating it to sacredness,” Sieradski said. By the end of 2011, the American Dialect Association voted occupy its Word of the Year at a convention boasting record turnout, precisely because of the expansiveness the term had taken on. Arguably, it offered an underappreciated utility to the (still ongoing) debates about occupy vs. decolonize, inasmuch as many of the things increasingly being “occupied” in these senses were, in fact, being seized upon by a decolonizing aspiration. “Part of what makes doing Jewish ritual in public a radical act is that we’re saying there’s holiness in every place and in every moment and we’re going to take the time to stop, recognize it and elevate it, without shame, without fear, for all to see and hear,” Sieradski said. “That was our intent inside the Occupy movement; that was our intent inside Zuccotti Park: to draw out the holiness of it and to elevate it and to do it without apology.”