A Wire Runs Through It

David W. Stowe

This week Yale unveiled an intriguing three-sited exhibition on the Jewish eruv. What is an eruv, you ask?  “An eruv is a partnership created within a boundary to enhance the observance of the Jewish Sabbath,” explains the website of Yale’s Initiative for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR).  

“Rabbinic law, enunciated in the Talmud, interprets the biblical imperative to ‘do no work’ on the Sabbath as forbidding the carrying of objects from a private space into a public space on that day. Because, however, the injunction against carrying would seem to contravene the biblical command that the Sabbath be ‘a joy,’ the rabbinical corpus characteristically mediated between strictures and joy by instituting the eruv. During Shabbat, the eruv border operates to transform a community into a shared dwelling place. In practice, the eruv allows an orthodox Jew to carry prayer books to the synagogue, to push strollers and wheelchairs, and to allow children to play outside.”

As befits an exhibition concerned with the extension and delimiting of social space, the exhibition sprawls across New Haven.  Up on Divinity Hill, the ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts includes photographs and artworks in a variety of media, including an installation Kafka in Space (Parsing the Eruv) which, according to curator Margaret Olin, “brings out the dystopic notion of the eruv suggested in Kafka’s aphorism on which the piece is based: ‘The true path leads across a rope that is no suspended on high, but close to the ground. It seems more intended to make people stumble than to be walked upon.’ When read with Kafka’s comment on the Warsaw eruv quoted in the [catalog’s] introduction, it suggests a society made up of unwieldy rules that are, for lack of a better word, Kafkaesque.”   

Downtown, the Joseph Slitka Center for Jewish Life is running an exhibit of photographs organized under the title Israel: Gated Community, while the School of Art’s Edgewood Gallery features installations that “move beyond the metaphor of the eruv to explore the consequences of the notion of borders for interpersonal relations.” 

There are some interesting uses of video technology, including a laser-based eruv of the future that signals when the eruv is “up” through a telltale pattern on the monitor, and a double-projection video installation called Turbulent: “While on one screen a male singer sings a lovely ballad to a crowded hall where male listeners fill every seat, on the opposite screen a woman faces an empty auditorium,” Olin describes. “As he finishes his love song and takes his bow, however, the singer is distracted by unearthly sounds, an ecstatic wordless music coming from the woman on the other screen. He stands, spellbound and silenced by her raw emotion, while the viewer is transfixed between the two.”

“The eruv boundary would appear to be an almost ideal border,” the MAVCOR site explains. “It is marked so subtly that it is almost invisible: by redefining already existing utility wires with the addition of common pieces of hardware or fishing line. No one who does not wish to needs to observe its limitations. Yet the institution of an eruv demands the cooperation of surrounding non-Jewish communities and is often the center of acrimonious disputes, including, for example, litigation currently in process nearby in the Hamptons, famous disputes in London, and competing eruv-installations in Brooklyn and in Jerusalem, where vandalism sometimes occurs. The concept of the eruv raises issues about public and private spaces, about borders and limitations and the communities they encompass that speak, in multifold and fascinating ways, to wider concerns about nations, immigration, property, and human rights.


Mark T. Edwards said…
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