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Can Boundaries Cause Unity?

Two exhibits ask whether eruvs speak to our essential beings or just replicate the conditions of our wanderings

Sarah Lehat
April 09, 2013

Two years ago, while at an exhibit at Paris’ Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme, I saw on a table at the center of the room a map of Jerusalem. Lying on top, as if placed in mid-thought, were photographs of seemingly arbitrary places. Next to one of the photographs was a typewritten anecdote. “We had been living together for seven years,” it read. “It was a Saturday morning in September 1992. We were taking a walk on Emek Refaim Road. He was a few meters ahead of me. All of a sudden, with no warning, he stopped, put his hand against the cemetery wall, turned toward me, and said: ‘I love another woman. I’m leaving.’ He remained motionless, his hand on the stone. Waiting. And I, I didn’t have the strength to look at his face, so I concentrated on that hand. The stone that it was resting on is the sixth stone up and the third past the green door, at No. 41. I still skim it lightly with my fingers when I pass by. As if to torture myself, to touch my sorrow.”

The streetscape was familiar to me. As a young girl, I would walk down that same road running my hands along the cemetery wall on my way to my grandparents’ house. The map, photograph, and text were part of an installation titled L’Erouv de Jerusalem (Jerusalem Eruv) by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, and they set me thinking about how our hands, bodies, even hair, contain memories—and about how mine were dueling with a stranger’s over the same territory.

Recently I encountered Calle’s installation again—this time as part of an exhibit at Yale University titled “Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv.” An eruv is the colloquial term for the subtlest of architectonic structures suggesting an enclosure to a particular area. The objective of the enclosure is to transform the area from public to private terrain, thus allowing for the act of tiltul, or carrying from property to property, which is otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath. Because I am an Orthodox Jew, the eruv is a familiar reference in my urban lexicon, albeit one I only tune in to once a week.

The works in the Yale exhibit are indicative of Shabbat’s choreography, containing as many variations as there are artists on the eruvic theme. Daniel Bauer and Avner Bar Hama each photograph the contested borders of eruv lines crisscrossing Palestinian-Israeli territories, recalling gang culture and turf wars of simultaneously global and personal magnitude. Ellen Rothenberg riffs on the eruv’s units of measurement—tefachim, or handbreadths, and amot, or cubits—tracing a simple black line along her skin, a snapshot of the human scale at the source of halachic terminology. There is Eliott Malkin’s hyper-conceptualized laser eruv, Mel Alexenberg’s exploration of the individual versus the collective, and Suzanne Silver’s depiction of eruv literature taking on a Kafkaeqsue life of its own. A series of exquisite photographs by exhibit curator Margaret Olin highlights the bricolage quality of the eruv’s amateur partitions: Telephone poles become columns to which are affixed the barest of horizontal wire architraves, which reveal how building an eruv can be an act of conceptual or performance art, simulating Christo-like contortions that test how much one can conceal an object while still maintaining its identity.

In conjunction with Yale, Yeshiva University Museum’s “It’s a Thin Line,” up through June 2013, has commandeered the historic and legal aspects of the eruv. Seeing YU Museum’s exhibit before seeing Yale’s is similar to learning about an eruv before encountering one. YU’s exhibit takes pains to describe the trajectory of the eruv as it makes its way off the pages of the Talmud, whose columns resemble abstracted eruvin that cordon off one commentator’s graphic territory from another—and onto the streets of medieval Europe and modern-day Manhattan. Most interesting of the many documents included in YU’s exhibition is the original manuscript of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s 1962 Shabbat Ha Gadol sermon. Anticipating the inauguration of Manhattan’s 1962 eruv two months later, Rabbi Lamm’s speech praises King Solomon, the original enactor of the eruv edict, as the father of modern government and the original advocate of mutual reciprocity between citizens. According to Rabbi Lamm, the eruv is not to space what Heschel’s Shabbat is to time. It is not an island, like Manhattan, whose own eruv controversies are a focal point of the YU exhibit.

The inheritor of the first fixed seat of government in Israelite history, King Solomon wanted to ensure that the residents of Jerusalem would gain an appreciation for the municipal responsibility they shared in common. After first enacting a further prohibition titled Issur Shcheinim, against carrying in ambiguously denoted shared spaces, King Solomon then enacted Eruvin. This, he hoped, would encourage the Israelites to redirect their observance of the Shabbat from isolated meditation to shared camaraderie with their fellow man.

In a 2009 winter issue of the Flatbush legal periodical Hakirah, Asher Bentzion Buchman supports Rabbi Lamm’s perspective, pointing out that King Solomon “sought to unify the people around the Beis Ha Mikdash … [and] he created amongst the people an awareness.” He goes on: The “Rambam explains that the people did not understand that they were in a state of partnership with the thousands, who lived in a walled city.” And most notably: “The appointment of a Jewish king still leaves his subjects as free men, with the responsibilities of free men.” Like the parameters of our identities, the eruv’s walls don’t fall under the jurisdiction of king or rabbi, but only under the reciprocally agreed-upon individual and collective jurisdictions of the inhabitants they enclose.

Jews haven’t often enjoyed the luxury of building our own walls. In fact, we’ve remained ingratiated to other cultures’ infrastructures for most of our history. (The exception of course are those walls we’ve chosen to build since re-acquiring a homeland, the most notable of which separates east and west Jerusalem on a parallel axis to the ruins of Herod’s state-sponsored second temple civic project.) Acknowledging that built environments reflect their builders’ shared heritage, I wondered whether the eruv simply replicates the conditions of our wanderings, or if it can indeed be considered a concrete map of Jewish identity.

Considering this question, I was reminded of a line from Christian Jacobs’ 2006 book The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches in Cartography Throughout History. “A map is defined perhaps less by formal traits than by the particular conditions of its reproductions and reception.” My former professor Eric Jenkins, who used to start off his first-year architecture students by asking them to draw a familiar object, introduced me to Jacobs. Professor Jenkins’ exercise would inevitably reveal the discrepancy between what we actually did and didn’t know. “Knowing” requires a frame of reference. Try drawing your home, your face, favorite jacket from your mind’s eye, and you’ll realize that you are missing information. Jacobs and Jenkins knew that one couldn’t map without coordinates. You have to link the unknown to the known. When looked at from this angle, the even march of the eruv’s telephone poles creates a series of portals, a kind of axis of change. While all week we try on new decisions, changing guises, morphing identities, and adventuring into the unknown, Shabbat makes a Jew a Jew. For 25 hours a week, the Jewish pedestrian must pause and consider who he or she is before crossing the eruv threshold. The eruv becomes the gatekeeper of our identity—in the words of Ahad Ha’am, “more than the Jews keep the Shabbat, the Shabbat keeps the Jews.”

Juxtaposed with the eruv’s origins as depicted in YU Museum’s exhibit, Calle’s installation becomes immeasurably more interesting. Her mapping of personal social codes onto specific geographic locations in Jerusalem appears almost a direct extension of King Solomon’s original intention. Unlike the reductive figure/ground duality of a Nolli map, or the text on parchment “white fire on black fire” of the written Torah, King Solomon knew that the terms “public” and “private” are specific not only to public context, but to each person, each memory. In charting the identities of the citizens of Jerusalem, Calle, like King Solomon, welcomes the inevitable breach of intimacy, the dissolution of boundaries, that comes with revealing the “inside” private rooms in our memory chambers as “outside”—recognizable to all within our shared urban fabric.


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Sarah Lehat is a Los Angeles-based writer and art consultant specializing in Israeli and Jewish artists.

Sarah Lehat is a Los Angeles-based writer and art consultant specializing in Israeli and Jewish artists.