Joshua Foer, 28
Tue, 05/10/2011
Staff Writer

Joshua Foer has been in the news a lot recently. Mainly, it’s for his new, best-selling book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” which describes how he became the 2006 American Memory Championship winner.

But how quickly people forget: he was also a lead organizer of last year’s “Sukkah City” architecture contest. The idea stemmed from Foer thinking, “It’d be wonderful if we can help bring the sukkah back as something on the radar of American Jews,” he said.

The widely publicized event — attended by Mayor Bloomberg; judged by renowned architecture figures like Thom Mayne and Paul Goldberger — featured 12 elaborately built sukkahs in Union Square Park. The final designs were selected from more than 600 submissions, many designed by non-Jews.

Nonetheless, the rules required that all designs adhere to strict rabbinic law. “The original goal was to get people to elevate the sukkah as a ritual object and get people to engage with it in a global way,” Foer said.

Foer was raised in a moderately observant household, though he finds the focus on one's level of observance “problematic.” He explained: “It’s like we’re so good at focusing on things that keep us separate or define us as Jews, instead of what brings us together.”

Foer, who collaborated with the Jewish non-profit Reboot to create Sukkah City, said plans for the 2011 contest will be announced before summer. Meantime, he’s been promoting his book.

While “Moonwalking with Einstein” does not center on a Jewish topic, Jewish references invariably show up. For instance, he writes about the old yeshiva practice in which a pin was pierced through the Talmud and students were expected to know every word that it might hit.

Then there’s the tradition of reading the Torah in public from a text written without any vowels. “You can’t just get up there and read it without some degree of familiarity,” Foer said.

“Like lots of people,” he said, “I’m concerned with the Jewish people and what we’re going to look like in the future. We’ve been doing this for a few thousand years and it’d be pretty crappy if we couldn’t figure out how to keep a good thing going.”

Favorite architects: Eero Saarinen, Thom Mayne