Mel Alexenberg

Mel Alexenberg – Neo-Nazi Gang Attacks Sky Art Sukkah in Munich

Mel Alexenberg – Neo-Nazi Gang Attacks Sky Art Sukkah in Munich

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I built a sukkah at the entrance to the BMW Museum in Munich as my artwork for the “Sky Art Exhibition” organized by MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Municipality of Munich.  It was attacked by a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang wielding crowbars and heavy chains in their attempt to destroy the sukkah constructed with same Bavarian pine wood that was used to build the Dachau concentration camp in a suburb of Munich.

When I read the news of how a neo-Nazi gunman attempted to break into a synagogue in Halle, Germany, to shoot as many Jews as he could during prayers on Yom Kippur, I decided to retell my Munich experience as an Israeli artist.

The message of the sukkah is the complete opposite of the need of the synagogue’s congregants to save themselves from a bloody massacre by bolting doors closed.

In the Bible, the prophet Zechariah invites all nations to share in celebrating the holiday of Sukkot with the Jewish people.  If people everywhere would live for one week in a fragile hut with no locked doors and with a loosely thatched roof revealing the sky, there would be peace on earth.  People would be living in peace with their neighbors and with nature.

Unfortunately, the hatred of Jews of the neo-Nazi murderer in Halle is not a rarity in today’s Germany. A 2017 report of the German Federal Government revealed that 33 million Germans, 40% of the population, are infected with a contemporary antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish State.

This article is an updated version of my story that explores how human values and concepts of space and time in building a sukkah differs from aspects of European culture that have promoted centuries of Jew-hatred that has drenched the European continent with Jewish blood.

In my 2019 book Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media, I tell the story as “Peace Hut Higher than Sky” in relation to seeing spiritual and ethical values expressed through one of the Hebrew names of God, Hamakom, literally “The Place,” the place where everything is happening..  It is appropriate for an observant Israeli Jew to have his book published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing when this year thousands of Christian friends of Israel are making the words Zechariah come true by coming to celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem.

A more academic version of the story appears in the chapter “Space-Time Structures of Visual Culture” in my 2011 book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books: University of Chicago Press).

 Building a Sukkah as a Giant Tallit (prayer shawl) with Ship Rope Tzitzit (fringes)

 Since my wife’s entire family in Holland were murdered by the Germans, I was reluctant to accept an invitation to participate in an exhibition in the city in which Hitler got his start and at a museum across the road from the Olympic Village where eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists.

However, I changed my mind when I read that the enthusiastic support of Munich’s citizens for Hilter was no new phenomenon. In the second half of the 13th century, Munich had a sizable Jewish community. The Jews lived in their own quarter and possessed a synagogue, ritual bath, and a hospital.  On October 12, 1285, in the wake of a blood libel, 180 Jews who had sought refuge in the synagogue were burnt to death.

The anti-Semitic nightmare continued.  Munich’s Jews were murdered as scapegoats for the plague in 1348, and all the Jews were expelled from Bavaria for the next three centuries in 1442.

To harass the Jews during the 18th century, the Munich authorities make it illegal to build a sukkah.  When I looked in my calendar and saw that the opening of the “Sky Art Exhibition” fell during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when each family builds a sukkah to celebrate this joyous holiday, I agreed to participate. A sukkah is sky art. Jewish tradition requires that stars in the night sky be visible through gaps in its roof.  I designed a fringed sukkah, a giant tallit sporting four mega-tzitzit with blue strands linking sky to sea.

Days before the holiday of Sukkot, I arrived at Munich airport.  I presented the uniformed German agent with the menorah on my Israeli passport and was offered free tourist maps of Munich in a dozen different languages.  I chose the Hebrew map.  The City of Munich murdered its Jewish population and then published a map in Hebrew. I never saw Hebrew maps of New York, Los Angeles, or Miami where hundreds of thousands of Jews live today.

This Kafkaesque encounter at the Munich airport continued when I was introduced to the city’s charming Director of Culture who greeted me in Hebrew.  She had learned to speak Hebrew as a volunteer at a kibbutz in Israel where she lived and worked to repent for the sins of her grandfathers.

When I arrived at the BMW museum I found pine planks piled on the sidewalk in front of the museum waiting for building the sukkah.  BMW had contributed the wood and sent its carpenters to help me erect it.  Unfortunately, they refused do anything when they learned that I had no blueprints.  It made no difference that I had an accurate drawing of my fringed sukkah that I had made for the exhibition catalog.  It didn’t help when I explained that as the designer, I could stand there and direct the construction.  “No blueprints! No building!” was their response.

An American systems artist from MIT, Uri Levy, overheard my hour-long discussion with the German carpenters and offered to help me build the sukkah.  As we started to build it, a Japanese artist passed by and offered to help.  Tsutomo Hiroi, Japan’s greatest kitemaker who would fly his giant dragons in the Bavarian sky, was also a skilled carpenter. He helped us build an elegant and strong structure.  As we worked, Hiroi stood inside the sukkah, looked around at it, and chanted, “Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building. Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building.”  He saw its resemblance to the delicate geometries of rice-paper covered wooden frameworks found in traditional Japanese dwellings.

I unsuccessfully tried to convince him that we were building a Jewish building to look like a giant striped prayer shawl.  When the sukkah was completed and we hung the mega-tzitzit from the four corners of the structure, he was willing to accept that we had built an Asian building.  Israel is on the west coast of Asia while Japan is on its east coast.

Jewish tradition requires that the sukkah roof, although open to the sky, give more shade than sunlight.  The Hebrew word for “shade” tzel is related to the word for “salvation” and “rescue” hatzalah.  The protective shade in the desert provided by the sukkah gave the Israelites life-granting refuge from the relentless sun while fleeing from Egyptian bondage. Just as the sukkah saved us with its shade, so when we don a tallit pulling it over our heads, we compare it to divine wings casting a protective shadow on us like the wings of an eagle covering eaglets.  Sukkah and tallit are conceptually linked.

I constructed a table from a clear plastic cylinder holding two discs, one as the tabletop and the second floating midway between the top and the ground.  On this second disc, I spread earth flown from Israel to hover over the ground casting an ellipsoid shadow on the sukkah floor.

My idea for creating a shadow-making table came from my realization that the final two Hebrew letters of eretz yisrael, the Land of Israel, spell the word for “shadow” tzeL.   Resting in the center of the of disc of earth from the Holy Land was an etrog, the beautiful fruit of the citron tree, one of the four species set by the Bible for celebrating Sukkot, the holiday called the “Season of Our Rejoicing” in the liturgy.

Munich Octoberfest and the Western Wall

After the sukkah was standing, tzitzit attached, and the cylindrical table ready for guests, I rode the tram back to my hotel with several other artists participating in the “Sky Art Exhibition.” As the tram passed fair grounds with rows of barn-like beerhalls (each sponsored by a different beer company), the other artists persuaded me to join them in leaving the tram to experience Munich’s Octoberfest.

We entered the nearest beerhall.  A powerful sudsy aroma hovered over long tables surrounded by blowsy folk in woodsy Bavarian costumes toting enormous steins of beer singing in tune to the up-pa-pa rhythms of a five-piece polka band.  As we found seats and were served the sponsor’s beer, a new tune began and the entire crowd began to sing out loudly in cadenced unison simultaneously raising their beer steins up high.

It looked like a movie set for a period film.  The period image that came to mind in horror was my childhood memory of newsreel films of vast crowds raising their arms high together shouting out as one, “Heil Hitler!”  I could see Munich’s citizens cheering Hitler as he proclaimed the Nazi revolution during his “Beer Hall Putsch.” This merging of individuals into an overwhelming oneness that submerges individuality was an altogether different togetherness than I had just experienced building the sukkah with Uri and Horoi.

I closed my eyes and saw the plaza before the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Hundreds of people are praying there at all times of the day.  They do not converge at any point to chant their prayers together, as an army of worshipers might do.  There are no fixed times for services where everyone could join together in one large assembly.  Instead, Jews form ad hoc minyanim (prayer quorums).  As soon as ten men find themselves together, they begin the prayer service as a few others join them.

Dozens of services, each beginning spontaneously can be seen simultaneously.  People float in and out of the scene coming together in small groups of strangers who are suddenly spiritually linked for half an hour or so.  They never find themselves submerged in an overwhelming oneness that diminishes individual expression.

Higher Than Sky

My story about the Sky Art Exhibition in Munich is as relevant today as it was when it happened thirty-six years ago.  The “Sky Art ‘83” international sky art conference was held at the exhibition where I deliver the keynote address.  My talk, “Higher than Sky,” revolved around a Hassidic tale in which Hassidim tell about their great rebbe (rabbi) who ascends to heaven during the ten days between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A skeptic comes to their town and hears them lovingly tell about how their rebbe ascends to heaven in order to plead for the forgiveness for all humanity’s transgressions in a face-to-face encounter with God.  The skeptic confronted a group of the Hassidim: “How can you think such ridiculous nonsense? They retorted, “If you knew our rebbe, you too would recognize his greatness.”

One morning in synagogue, the skeptic sees the rebbe who was seated in the front next to the ark suddenly disappear.  He ran out of the synagogue and spied the rebbe rapidly walking down the street.  The skeptic discretely trailed the rebbe and saw him enter his home to emerge a short time later dressed in workman’s clothes with an ax in his belt and a rope draped over his shoulder.

The rebbe walked to the edge of his village where the forest began, chopped down a small tree, cut off its branches, tied all the wood together with his rope, and entered a shack with the bundle of wood on his back.  Peering through a window, the skeptic saw a frail old woman in bed and the rebbe putting the wood in her stove, peeling potatoes and putting up a stew to cook, changing her bedding, and getting down on his knees to scrub the floor.

He then spied the rebbe walking back home, replacing his work clothes with an elegant black brocade robe and a white woolen tallit, and returning to the synagogue through a back door.  The skeptic quietly slipped into the synagogue to find the Hasidim talking ecstatically about their rebbe’s return from his ascent to heaven.  The skeptic added, “If not higher than that!”

Professor Mel Alexenberg
Author of Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, and in Hebrew: Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art.
Former professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies; in Israel: professor at Ariel University, Bar-Ilan University and Emunah College. 
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