Eruv and Art: Some New Exhibitions
by Samuel D. Gruber
In recent years there has been as revival - I would even say an assertive revival - of the institution of the eruv in American and European cities, inclusion neighborhoods not traditionally associated with Orthodox Jewish practice. Both the idea and the material fact of the eruv - a single line that can seemingly create "Jewish Space" out of thin air - have attracted the attention of a wide range of Jewish writers an artists, including (especially?) many non-Orthodox or non-Traditional and secular Jews. This despite the fact the the eruv primarily exists (or at least has so existed in the past) - as a convenient doge or hedge against halacha (Jewish law) to "enhance" or facilitate the carrying of objects on the Sabbath. for an traditionally observant community this can be important as it allows men to carry their tallit, and women to push baby strollers and carry diaper bags.
The theme of the eruv was central to Michael Chabon's fanciful novel the Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007) and last year (2011) the art historical journal Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture devoted an entire issue to the theme "Visualizing the Eruv."
The push for expanded and new eruvs (Heb: eruvim) in American and European cities is evidence of physically expanding Orthodox populations, their settlement in new urban areas, but also an expanded social and political confidence that allows communities to be more forthright in their requests (even demands) for more eruvim. In America, Hasidic Orthodox communities have considerable political clout, especially locally, when they can turn out large numbers of bloc voters. In the past, this power has been used to gain increased social services for large and largely poorer Hasidic families, and also for all sorts of zoning permissions and variances for new house additions, new construction and other permit-requiring neighborhood changes, including the installation of eruvim.
What is surprising about the new eruv movement is how many non-Orthodox Jews have embraced this effort, clearly indicative of a new Jewish particularism, including among more-secular intellectuals and artists. This more broadly reclaiming and rebranding of the eruv by many non-traditional Jews is similar is many ways to the re-acceptance, and even championing of the mikveh, among Jewish feminists of the previous generation. It is also probably due to the increase number (in America) of secular Jews, including artists, who have Jewish Day School of University Jewish Studies experience, allowing them to comfortably combine contemporary creativity (and skepticism) with traditional values and ritual (The Jewish Museum's recent Reinventing Ritual exhibition is another example).
There are other factors at play, too. Cityscapes are already awash with a tangle of electrical, cable and other wires and ropes strung along street and yards, and even public places, with plenty of poles every few yards to support them. This is a ready-made infrastructure for stringing an eruv, and can make it much easier to promote an almost invisible eruv over local (non-Jewish) objections. For artists, however, such invisibility can runs counter to their desire to assert more boldly the presence of "Jewish Space," and so in recent years there have been projects to embellish and celebrate the eruv. The eruv is not an imposed "ghetto" wall restricting Jews; but a self-created line that helps define and support traditional Jews, and Jewish communal life.
To me, as a Reform Jew, the notion of an eruv is unnecessary, as I see the designation of carrying a diaper bag as Sabbath work quite absurd, but then I think that using a electric timer to turn lights on and off during the Sabbath is equally silly. Both are convenient ways to live the letter of the law, but avoid the consequences. But then again, I believe Judaism is a religion of acceptance and accommodation of contemporary realities, and it may be that devices such as the eruv and timer are ways the Orthodox community can acknowledge this. I also like the idea of marking space, whether with signage about historic sites or more off-beat messages. I can accept the eruv, since it marks space - but in such a delicate, literally transparent way, that one sees and understands only what one needs.
In any case, all this is a prelude to announcing exhibitions about the eruv at Yale University (!), that centuries-old bastion of American Protestantism. What is world coming to?
Three exhibitions exploring a Jewish spatial practice
with tour of all three exhibitions
Thursday, October 18 | 4:30-6:30 pm
simultaneously at all three galleries -- begin anywhere and hop on a gallery shuttle bus to see the others!
Israel: Gated Community
October 8 - November 16
Allan and Leah Rabinowitz Gallery*Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale
80 Wall StreetHours: M-F: 10am-5pm; Weekends: noon-4pm203.432.1134
This Token Partnership
October 10 – December 14
ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts
409 Prospect StreetHours: W-F: noon-6pm; Weekends: noon-4pm203.436.5955
32 Edgewood Gallery
Hours: M, W-Sun:1-6pm; closed Tuesdays