Borders: The Eruv In Contemporary Jewish Art – Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv at Yale
Latest update: June 10th, 2013
Ellen Rothenberg “explores modes of thinking in space” by strikingly printing over 20 quotations concerning the eruv from the Rambam on a 15’ curtain suspended from a wire strung wall to wall. As if the Rambam’s partial statements were not puzzling enough, they are printed vertically so that to see them one must twist one’s head sideways. Rothenberg’s strategy is to physically engage the viewer in the ideas she finds intriguing. Similarly, her photos of a black line drawn from her elbow to her fingertip (the length of an amah) and across two clenched fists (2 tefachim) impose rabbinic measures into the reality of the artist’s physicality, and by extension the viewer’s.
While Suzanne Silver’s Kafka in Space sees the eruv as a “semiotic code” in relation to a Kafka quote she believes refers to the rabbinic fence, her installation of possible eruv parts and a neon sign that boldly announces “eruv” in Hebrew and English, is less than convincing, requiring a strenuous leap of faith by the viewer. Initially Elliott Malkin’s installation, Modern Orthodox, prompted a similar reaction. After all, how could his laser-beam eruv, on display in the courtyard just outside the gallery and recorded by a video monitor inside, be considered a serious and substantial “wire” that delineated a Shabbos boundary. However, upon reflection, how could the rabbinic constructs of a mere wire and portion of an upright post be considered a “doorway” as part of a “wall” to change the halachic status of a semi-public space into a fully protected private space to allow carrying on Shabbos? Could a laser beam provide as much a halachic warning as a practically invisible string? Perhaps. But more importantly we understand that the primary function of art is to raise questions, not provide answers and Malkin’s work does exactly that as he addresses the rabbinic eruv’s fragile and ephemeral nature.
The exhibition continues in the gallery at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale with the work of three photographers who consider Israeli eruvim. Alan Cohen sees the eruv as embedded in the architecture of Ultra Orthodoxy, specifically in the cityscape of Me’ah Shearim, Jerusalem. In almost all his images the Jerusalem stone of the ancient houses provides a timeless backdrop for the artificially white eruv lines in remarkable contrast to the black and grey of the banal utility wires. It is almost as if the eruv’s sanctity has bleached the wires with purity.
In contrast to Cohen’s wires, Daniel Bauer ponders the eruv poles as he finds them in the Israeli landscape. They seem to confront the countryside and open fields as an aggressive imposition, pushing back against the landscape. In his elegantly composed Untitled (Pine Trees) a lone eruv pole is centered in fledging grove of pine trees planted on the side of a hill. This Shabbos border marker seems to fit right in with the trees until we notice the poured concrete construction site just up the hill. One wonders if the pine trees have a fighting chance as they are encroached upon by Shabbos on one side and urban sprawl on the other. Here the eruvbecome symbolic of Israeli’s relentless development and residential expansion.
Finally Avner Bar Hama considers the larger borders of the land of Israel. His Eruv Tahumin: Gush Katif (2005) ponders the tragedy of the expulsion of this Jewish community through an image of its former external border. The ruin of a guard post lies just inside the eruv/security-light poles perimeter. Seen from the inside, the lights face outward over the sand dunes to the sea beyond and evoke a deep sense of loss and desolation. Mutual-Responsibility of the Country (2006) considers Israel from afar, the entire Israeli map outlined with stylized eruv poles demarking the land from the rest of the world. In the middle of the image is the verse “A Land that…the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end. (Deuteronomy 11:12).”
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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