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Borders: The Eruv In Contemporary Jewish Art – Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv at Yale


The Miami Beach Eruv (1998) digital print on canvas by Mel Alexenberg
Courtesy the artist

The Miami Beach Eruv (1998) digital print on canvas by Mel Alexenberg Courtesy the artist

ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts, Yale Institute of Sacred Music
Allan and Leah Rabinowitz Gallery, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale
32 Edgewood Gallery, Yale School of Art, New Haven, Ct
Hours and dates: www.yale.edu/ism/eruv

For most observant Jews, the eruv is invisible. Each week we prepare for Shabbos: ready our food, conclude our mundane affairs, shower, dress and put the house keys in our pocket and check the web that the local eruv is up. Unless there has been a storm or other physical disaster, we can assume everything is okay. Just like the Shabbos calm that descends for 25 hours, the eruv operates for us in the background: essential but unnoticed.

At Yale that is not the case. Margaret Olin, senior research scholar at the Yale Divinity School, has curated a groundbreaking three-part exhibition that critically examines this three thousand year old fundamental rabbinic institution. As far as I am aware the intricacies of such a complex halacha has never been subject to an artistic investigation, not to mention an entire exhibition of eleven diverse artists. Interestingly, almost all of these artists are not observant, which may be why they can feel free to artistically engage in this forbidding subject.

Mel Alexenberg, venerable conceptual artist, teacher and writer, has paradoxically one of the more traditional works in this show, a digital print on canvas, The Miami Beach Eruv (1998) that reflects its initially “hidden” nature. We see a gaudy Art Deco façade on Ocean Drive (Miami Beach) brandishing the glory of the material workaday world. Meanwhile a black and white digitalized image of Rembrandts’ fleeing angel (Angel Leaving Tobias, Louvre) is caught in this morass, symbolizing the religious Jew trapped in Miami’s culture of flesh and sensuality. And yet the thin eruv line stretches across the top, reminding us of Shabbos and delineating the permissible from the forbidden.

In a more practical vein Margaret Olin, the show’s curator and conceptual creator, presents us with a photographic primer on the very nature of the eruv. Her 35 photographs (2010 – 2012) and illuminating texts (including Maimonides, Talmud Yerushalmi, Franz Kafka, Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) present the purpose and means of the urban eruv. Describing it as “This Token Partnership” wherein multiple private dwellings agree to share a common space and its ownership by means of shared food (such as a box of matzah), Olin begins her images simply with the matzah of the Yale eruv. The scope of course quickly expands to include whole neighborhoods “shared” by means of symbolic walls and doorways, constructed by the most minimal of means, defined by her as “urban bricolage.” This term, amazingly appropriate for the eruv, is a postmodern technique in which ordinary and/or found objects are combined to create artworks. In the eruv this includes the sides of buildings, fences, telephone poles, wires and anything else that can be halachically patched together to create the legitimate borders of a shared private space. Her examination of the New Haven/Yale eruv with its rabbinic supervisors exposed the physical and conceptual complexities of such a project and guided her photographs. By focusing on the intricacies of the necessary vertical posts (lechi) and the horizontal posts or wires (koreh elyon) either in beautifully abstract close-ups or the seemingly invisible halachic borders in disarmingly simple street scenes, the viewer is slowly brought into the complex mindset of rabbinic urban architecture.

New York Hilton (2010), photograph by Margaret Olin
Courtesy the artist

Olin’s images explore how the urban eruv simultaneously includes and excludes city spaces with her image New York Hilton marking the Sixth Avenue border of the Manhattan eruv, paradoxically shutting off access to Jews who carry on Shabbos. Similarly she also explores eruv wires in Israel, such as the one in Abu Tur running past an Islamic institution, that proudly wave their “flags” and make the weekly checking easier.

Another aspect of the first section of the exhibition is an exploration of theoretical concepts that the eruv summons. Ben Schachter’s Eruv Maps (reviewed here in November, 2008) are naturally in abundance. These twelve deeply conceptual works slyly reproduce the map outlines of city eruvim using simple thread as the border, thereby echoing the wire that creates most eruv borders. These works operate by collapsing the vast physical size and complexity of the eruv into simple artworks, each 20” x 30.” In this way his work unexpectedly points out just how abstract and creative this rabbinic innovation actually is. As the catalogue notes, his eruv maps are “emulations of emulations,” reflecting the reality that “the eruv emulates architecture through a summary drawing in space by means of fishing lines and wires, so he emulates that drawing through his own fiber art…” It is the parsing the borders of interior/exterior (and at times interior exclusions or ‘holes’), real and imagined structures and walls, Shabbos boundaries and weekday spaces that make the eruvsuch an intriguing concept.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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2 Responses to “Borders: The Eruv In Contemporary Jewish Art – Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv at Yale”

  1. Shaping Community eruv exhibition curated by Margaret Olin is reviewed.

  2. This is a thoughtful review of our exhibition, Shaping Community.

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