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A Model for Change: Eruv as Art

A thin line wends its way around Manhattan, above our heads, mostly invisible. We walk beneath it, within its boundaries every day, often unaware of its existence. Yet this thin line has been the subject of much controversy regarding Orthodox Jewish observance, especially in Manhattan.

At the exhibit “It’s a Thin Line,” now showing at the YU Museum, the eruv is portrayed visually in many different ways. These visual representations are displayed alongside documents about the eruv’s history, many from the Mendel Gottesman library. In Extruded (an eruv project), blue and white strings hang from the ceiling over an island of Manhattan, portraying various eruvim from 1907-2012. Ben Schachter’s minimalist eruv canvases abstract geography, topographically illustrating the boundary that divides public and private. Yona Verwer’s Lower East Side Instillation, on the other hand, lends a more feminine perspective to the exhibition, as she paints pieces of the synagogue, which she cannot not see as a woman stranded at home with children, and without an eruv.

The way that the lack of eruvim affected women is a huge emphasis of the exhibition. A wall of quotes gives voice to such women, one who states, “I was a captive with my children in my house every Shabbbat,” while another quote reads, “The lack of an eruv weakens the necessary communal ties.” Yet the opposing perspective of Rabbi Theodore Adams is that if “the Orthodox Jew can find legal loopholes in such a basic part of our observance as Shabbat then you leave open the question of what is the difference between Orthodox and Conservative Jews.” The eruv thus serves as a boundary in communities not only between public and private, but between spiritual denominations as well.

Perhaps the most aesthetically attractive part of the exhibition is an actual model of a modern eruv, winding its way around the blue walls of the room, in the shape of a skyline. The white wire even strings through a lamppost at one part of the exhibit, connecting the two rooms of the exhibit to each other. The overall blue and white color scheme of the exhibit fits the subject matter, while the exhibit itself walks a thin line between a history exhibit and an art exhibit. Joining the historical with the artistic is a difficult endeavor, and the exhibit struggles to create a united, coherent visual experience. However, each piece on its own is visually interesting, and asks the reader to question and read text and image closely. From open talmuds with diagrams of eruvim to videos with interviews of Rabbis about eruv, the exhibit provides a variety of material for learning and appreciation.

At a panel on February 4 moderated by Adam Mintz, Rabbi at KRA, Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor at Brandeis, Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, the halakhic authority behind Manhattan’s eruv, and Blu Greenberg all spoke about their perspectives on eruv. Fishman addressed the fact that until 1972, there were no eruvim outside of New York. She believes that due to the growth of the day school movement and Orthodox feminism, eruvim have spread. She celebrates the way eruvim have sprung up among Jewish communities, yet is also wary of the way eruv has created a division between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, in terms of the quality of public schools and the economic business of stores. With an eruv, the Orthodox Jews seclude themselves in one area, and no one lives outside of it. Fishman closed by imploring the audience to “not allow it to be a fence that shuts out an empathy . . . for people who do not share our lifestyles.”

Rabbi Kermaier addressed the difficulties of reconstructing a new eruv when people were no longer satisfied with the halachic legitimacy of the Manhattan Central Eruv. The new Eruv they have constructed is incredibly expensive, as they will not accept Shabbat if the eruv is not up. This is because people will carry anyway and won’t call to check if the eruv is up. Yet Kermaier argued the opposite of Fishman, saying that the eruv itself brings together religious groups, as donations for the eruv come form JTS and Or Zarua, while the Machon L’horaah (a right wing religious group) is responsible for the upkeep of the eruv. Although today we’ve reached the point where when the eruv is down, we don’t rejoice for the hinukh opportunities it provides, Kermaier and Mintz stressed that it is still important, that even if we take the eruv for granted practically, we don’t loose site of its symbolic meaning.

Greenberg sees the symbolic meaning in the eruv, specifically in its model for a halakhic loophole. She opened by explaining that she sees this model as a model for solving the Agunah crisis. Living in Washington Heights as a young married woman with her husband Yitz, Greenberg did not feel any deprivation from eruv. Not being able to attend shul on Shabbat was similar to not being able to turn on a light. But one Shabbat, Greenberg expected a babysitter to arrive to babysit her children so she could attend a family aufruf—and the babysitter never came. With the rise of feminism in the 70s, there were “different expectations about public and communal space.” As eruvim began to be built to reflect the changing times, women’s tefilah was born, and with it, shuls adapted their architecture to accommodate women, using different mechitzot and seating women in different places. Greenberg then spent some time celebrating the achievements of women in our times, as they have been transformed from hostesses and entertainers to real communal leaders, presidents of shuls who can recite kadish. Greenberg closed by referring back to her Agunah point, stating: “We should see ourselves as those who hold interpretive keys in our hands.” If Rabbis could work out the problems of eruv, they should be able to work out the problems of Agunah. “Anything that we have done its because you paved the way,” Mintz said to Greenberg, making it clear that Greenberg’s idea about the relationship between agunah and eruv may indeed pave the way for Rabbinic legislation.

The decision to build an eruv was once seen as tearing down the dividing line between different denominations in Judaism. Orthodox Jews, people proclaimed, did not carry on Shabbat. Why justify something halakhically if it would make Orthodoxy seem more like Conservative Judaism? Yet it seems that eruv, in many ways, has made these divisions even stronger. At the same time, it has broken down gender barriers between men and women in religious ritual and the synagogue. Every line then, no matter how thin, is capable of dividing and uniting. By privatizing the public area, eruv has created a fictional space in which women can now be a larger part of the community. Looking back, we don’t realize what Jewish life was like 40 years ago, and how very different it was. Yet today, we face many of the same issues: how do we separate ourselves from other denominations? How do we define ourselves? What lines do we draw, or not draw?

The exhibition primarily demonstrates that eruv is a form of art. It a piece of instillation art, installed in communities around the world, and the artists are the Jewish people. If we can galvanize the construction of eruv, then, according to Greenberg, we as a community can create any changes we desire. And the art of change is an art form that however invisible and intangible it may seem, has symbolic meaning beyond our time.

“It’s a Thin Line” is on display at the YU Museum through June 30. The Museum is free for Yeshiva University students.