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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

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Avner Bar Hama, detail of Gush Katif, 2006. (Courtesy of the artist)
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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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Zachary Paul Levine says:

As the curator of the YU Museum exhibition, “It’s a Thin Line – The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond,” I am writing to respond to Sarah Lehat’s essay. I write neither out of offense nor consternation that the author does not appear to have enjoyed our presentation. Rather, I seek to respond to the preceding essay’s lack of engagement with the exhibition, and the author’s apparent neglect for stories that that the nearly 200 objects tell, the nature of the various contemporary art pieces, and the fact that the exhibition tracks the vary issues around Jewish space and identity in which the authors expresses interest.

Lahat attempts to evaluate how the respective exhibitions by Yeshiva University Museum and Yale University explore the role of eruvs (Hebrew plural eruvin) in shaping Jewish personal and communal space, as she characterizes it in the spirit of King Solomon in the Talmudic description of his legislation for an eruv, which Maimonides among other commentators further developed. Her conclusion seems to be that the Yale presentation more fully and interestingly explores this question of communal space than does the YUM project.

Yet, YUM’s focus in fact tracks this same spirit through the ways that Jews historically conceived of and built eruvs over nearly two millennia, through dozens of rare books, documents, tools, films, and art installations. Indeed YUM’s “exhibit takes pains to describe the trajectory of the eruv” through Jewish experience to define what an eruv is. I can only guess that the reviewer was less excited by the historical dimensions of YUM’s presentation, in contrast to the Yale exhibition’s concentration on artistic expression. Certainly the Yale presentation was a different project: to use the concept of eruv as a jumping off point for artistic exploration of contemporary political, social and religious issues. Nevertheless, Lehat expresses some interest in the historical dimensions of eruv, wondering “whether the eruv simply replicates the conditions of our wanderings, or if it can indeed be considered a concrete map of Jewish identity.”

Lehat’s comparison of the exhibitions — and the maps within them — relies exclusively on Sophie Calle’s installation, at the expense of other contents in the YUM (and Yale’s?) exhibition. Indeed, the idea that Calle’s eruv map illustrates the presence of “personal social codes onto specific geographic locations” should have been evident in the dozens of eruv maps and books in the YUM gallery, not to mention the various eruv mapping projects on view by artist Ben Shachter. I am surprised that Lehat did not find a similar discussion to Calle’s in Schachter’s explorations of the topography of ritual space in his paint and thread maps of historical and contemporary eruvs.

Indeed, Lehat makes no mention of the art installations within and outside of the YUM exhibition gallery. Yona Verwer’s sixteen-panel multimedia installation explores the hardships faced by women, children, the elderly and infirm who live without an eruv on the Lower East Side. R. Justin Stewart’s 15-foot tall sculpture composed of thousands of strings, comprises a three-dimensional timeline of the eruvs that have existed in Manhattan from the first one in 1907 into the present. These projects explore the movement of Jews throughout Manhattan over a century, and how those communities infused their neighborhoods with Jewish meaning, in part, through ritual, but also through mundane activities of daily life (also on view though several historical photographs from the New York Historical Society). It’s surprising these projects, which seek to map “personal social codes onto specific geographic locations” in Manhattan, failed to resonate with the reviewer. Perhaps where these pieces differ from the Yale presentation is in their interaction with architecture and design, text, and the spirit of community over time, and not necessarily just in the present?

The most distressing quality of this essay is the author’s dismissal of YUM exhibition’s consideration of the controversies around eruvs – which embody the conceptual direction Lehat explores throughout her essay. Even in referencing Norman Lamm’s sermon, mentioning its place within the Manhattan eruv debates of the second half of the 20th century, Lehat neglects Lamm’s place in a much wider and longer debate on eruvs stretching across hundreds of communities, and at least from the 19th century if not earlier. Indeed, Lamm, in his Sermon, along with his forerunners in previous centuries and contemporary interlocutors, weighed the spirit of Solomon’s institution of the eruv against the halachic exigencies of refraining from carrying on the Sabbath. Yet, Lehat’s characterizes Lamm’s sermon as existing on its own, separate from the long and lively debates over ‘the spirit versus the practical’ that have shaped in the creation of hundreds urban eruvs around the U.S. in recent decades. Indeed, as someone interested in the vicissitudes of Jewish communal identity and geographic distribution, I am surprised that Lehat so easily wrote off this particular phenomenon, let alone how it fuels a surprisingly wide interest in what is is an otherwise esoteric halachic novelty to most people … so novel that it was a topic on The Daily Show (featured in the a digital interactive covering eruv controversies across several New York communities).

Lastly, I find myself confused at how a ten-paragraph review of two exhibitions can only devote two and half paragraphs to the exhibitions themselves. Rather, the exhibitions and their evaluation seem to be little more than components to the author’s musings on the concept of Jews and the spaces they occupy. But what does the reader actually learn about the exhibitions? Aside from listing the artists appearing the Yale presentation, and one object in the YUM exhibition, Lehat makes little effort to distinguish between the two, and offers little by way of highlights of either beyond the aforementioned examples. She neglects that the Yale exhibition took place across multiple locations around the campus, whereas the YUM presentation is in a conventional museum gallery. She gives short shrift to the international scope of the Yale effort, while maligning New York focus of the YUM project. She offers little description of what each exhibition attempts to do, and equally little evaluation of whether either exhibition fulfils that objective. Additionally, she, and the editors, offer images from the Yale exhibition, but none – not that they requested any – from the YUM presentation (available here, and here

Again, I do not mind if the reviewer does not like the YU Museum exhibition, finds it boring, or thinks it was an exercise in futility. However, as the curator and as a visitor (or a potential visitor) to museums and galleries, I expect that a review will fulfill its objective: to review the exhibition.

Zachary Paul Levine

Exhibition Curator for It’s a thin Line – The Eruv and Jewish Community in New
York and Beyond

    Margaret Olin says:

    Am I missing something? The review is brief (your response is almost as long as the review), and it doesn’t choose to use its limited space to discuss very much of the art, but I had the impression that the reviewer liked both exhibitions very much. She seemed to find that each of them provided a great deal to think about, and much of the review was engaged in offering an example of the thinking spurred by the exhibitions.
    Are you perhaps bothered by the expression: “Juxtaposed with the eruv’s origins as depicted in YU Museum’s exhibit, Calle’s installation becomes immeasurably more interesting.”?
    I read that to mean that after seeing the exhibition at Yeshiva, the Calle installation becomes immeasurably more interesting than it was before! Because the viewer is better prepared to appreciate the Calle installation after seeing the one at Yeshiva, and in fact, can now see it in a new light. The Yeshiva University Museum Exhibition provides the background to the Yale exhibition. That’s what she meant earlier, when she said that “Seeing YU Museum’s exhibit before seeing Yale’s is similar to learning about an eruv before encountering one.” It is always useful, isn’t it, to learn about something before encountering it for the first time? I for one, am happy that the YUM exhibition overlapped with the one at Yale. I think that “It’s a Thin Lin” was a terrific exhibition; and unless I am misreading, so did Ms. Lehat.
    Margaret Olin
    Exhibition Curator For
    Shaping Community: The Poetics and Politics of the Eruv

      Thank you for your response Margaret.

      Zachary – Margaret has read my intentions accurately. With regards to the artistic elements of the YUM exhibition, I did find these less compelling than the historical artifacts, which were impressive to say the least. Due to editorial limitations I was obliged to be selective in mentioning those aspects I found most interesting in each exhibit. Needless to say (or as I have spent 10 paragraphs saying), both exhibits spurned a tremendous amount of interest on my part resulting in the ensuing research and “musings” – which is exactly what a good exhibit should do – I commend you on a job well done.


    Yona Verwer says:

    The author seems to be interested in varying issues around Jewish space and identity, yet completely ignores the exciting way in which the Y.U. Museum addresses these issues, both with its contemporary art and its artifacts.

    As one of the artists participating in the Y.U. Museum exhibit, I agree with its curator, Zachary Levine, that this article is written almost entirely through the prism of Sophie Calle’s installation, ignoring most of the Y.U. Museum. One is left with precious little info on each exhibit, which is a missed opportunity, considering its rich, underexplored and sometimes controversial subject matter.


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