Sunday, January 29, 2006

Another Secular Eruv Essay Which Cites "The Contemporary Eruv"

Jewish Social Studies, Spring-Summer 2005 v11 i3 p36(22)
Rabbinic Urbanism in London: Rituals and the Material Culture of the Sabbath. Jennifer Cousineau.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Indiana University Press

In February 2003, six and a half square miles of the Borough of Barnet was leased to a representative of London's Jewish community for a nominal sum of approximately one British pound. (1) This unusual real estate transaction activated a type of space--an eruv--that would have immediate practical ramifications for part of the Jewish community, and would stand over time as a powerful spatial expression of communal values and identity. This article offers an ethnographic and material culture analysis of a spatial phenomenon that I call "rabbinic urbanism," using the planning and construction of the London eruv as an example. Rabbinic urbanism refers to the processes by which rabbinic actors and thinkers theorize and construct urban space. For my purposes, the category of rabbinic actors encompasses both ordained rabbis--the formally recognized interpreters of halakhah--and ordinary Jews who understand their behavior to be circumscribed by it.

Although the particular rabbinic actors I shall discuss below see themselves as the inheritors of an unbroken tradition of interpretation and practice dating back to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I use the concept of rabbinic urbanism in a historically specific and limited manner. The idea, and possibly the practice, of the eruv dates back to the late second century, as the Mishnah attests, but each group of rabbinic actors has produced its own interpretation of the theory and material production of the eruv-object, in response to a specific set of material and social conditions. My investigation focuses on a late-twentieth-century form of the eruv, through which I hope to contribute to an enlarged understanding of the ways in which Jews locate themselves in urban space. The type of rabbinic urbanism I observed in London and will elaborate below was characterized by ritualized uses and practices of space, legal designations, and sanctification of the mundane through a host of communal gestures and debates. (2)

Although Jews have been a distinctly if not exclusively urban group since at least the first century, little attention has been paid to the relationship between the practice of Judaism and its paradigmatic site--the city. (3) Indeed, as Arnold Eisen has noted, little attention has been paid to Judaism as a modern ritual and spatial practice at all, let alone in relation to its larger urban context. (4) Modern historians of Judaism have generally treated the city as incidental or as a kind of backdrop to events in Jewish history. In fact, however, the urban context for the actions of Jews has played a central role in the making of those historical events and processes. The urban site and scale of the London eruv shaped almost every aspect of its planning, production, and usage, and neither this eruv nor any other can be understood without an appreciation of the urban processes that underpinned them. (5)

The critical framework for this investigation grows out of an ethnographic approach to space pioneered by the historian Rhys Isaac as well as Dell Upton's scholarship on the city as material culture. (6) Isaac's method calls for close observation of the details of "people doing things," which he calls "action statements," and on attention to the settings in which human action unfolds. The context for any human activity, he argues, contributes to the shaping of that activity. I would add that the creation of a physical context for action (such as the London eruv) must be included in the larger category of "people doing things." For Isaac and for me, the urban landscape constitutes an elaborately coded network of nonverbal statements that resonate deeply for those who act in and on them. (7)

Part of the work of this article is to decode the nonverbal statements that the London eruv made, even before it reached its complete physical form in 2003. The specter of its presence loomed large in the spatial imaginations of Londoners from the time that the first plans for an eruv emerged. Upton's approach to the city calls attention to what he terms the "city-artifact," or the city as material culture, and its relationship to people, their thoughts, and their conscious and unconscious actions. My working definition of material culture, building on Upton's, is broad. Material culture is that part of our physical environment that is altered through human behavior, both intentional and unintentional. (8) The city, from this perspective, is an interactive artifact, constantly shifting in urbanites' imaginations and being altered by them to reflect their immediate needs and their aspirations for the future. Although Upton calls for (and I support) a multisensory approach to the city-artifact, in this article I shall privilege the visual dimension of urban life over the aural or the olfactory. One important reason for this is that popular responses to the eruv-artifact foregrounded the visual impact it and its users would have on suburban London.

My objective, then, is to attend to the relationship between the physical fabric of the city and the ways that city people imagine it, construct it, represent it, and act in it. After outlining the methodological challenges inherent in the study of eruvin, I divide the article into three parts. The first section is a close reading of a rabbinic responsum that explores London as a potential site for the construction of an eruv. From a material-culture perspective, the responsum reveals a particular vision for the fabric of the city at a given point in time. It is an interpretation of London qualified by the intention of creating both a new urban artifact and a certain mode of desirable (from a rabbinic perspective) ritualized behavior within a limited sector of the city. In the second section, I analyze oral histories of the construction of the current London eruv and look at the eruv-object as built in Northwest London. This body of evidence allows us to understand the intentions and acts of individuals and groups of Jews in the process of giving physical form to a structure like the one the responsum writer imagined and described in literary form. An exploration of the physical features of the eruv exposes the powerful nonverbal statements the eruv makers wove into their urban environments. The third section interprets some of the verbal and pictorial representations of the eruv and its users as reactions to a process of self-location by one group of urbanites among many others. Popular representations of Jews and the eruv during the 1990s reveal that it was not only the materiality of the eruv but also its visually prominent and ritual usage by recognizably Jewish bodies-in-space that prompted debate and discussion of the functions and meanings of the eruv within its larger urban cultural landscape. (9)

Methodological Challenges

The study of eruvin presents an interesting problem for scholars of material culture. Eruvin--or, to be more precise, the perimeters of eruvin, which are their principal material manifestations--have most often been made out of preexisting structures such as city walls, fences, houses, or the banks of canals and rivers. (10) They leave no evidence of their existence as eruv perimeters once their use is discontinued. Rabbinic literature, in which the construction and use of eruvin are both regulated and recorded, becomes the critical source of information for this material entity. This raises methodological questions about the juxtaposition of literature and material culture. How can a historian of space and the built environment work without material evidence? And how can evidence of material phenomena best be gleaned from words and texts? (11)

As a historian of the modern material world, I read the rabbinic corpus (including responsa) diachronically, as a rich repository of traditions in which the authors theorized material culture as a vehicle for Jewish identity in distinct historical moments. My informants in London, by contrast, understood and applied the historical layers of the rabbinic corpus synchronically, as a matrix of voices loosely connected to the particularities of time and place. They drew from that corpus liberally as they pieced together a new landscape. London, a city the size and configuration of which the authors of the Mishnah and Talmuds could hardly have imagined, became familiar to the rabbinic mind through the application of halakhic planning principles. The theory on which the London eruv is based is an assemblage of spatial principles and technical solutions worked out by a variety of halakhists and practitioners over time. Whether understood synchronically or diachtonically, the rabbinic tradition presents a range of perspectives on the ways that Jews ought to relate to the material world.

Talmudic folklorists have shown that rabbinic language and imagery grew out of the familiar world the rabbis inhabited and the social and material environments they knew best--that is, out of common people, places, and practices. (12) The objects they discussed range from the most ordinary household items, such as bread and the ovens it was baked in, to the most monumental urban infrastructure. In the particular case of the eruv, the rabbinic tradition has been focused on the question of how to organize the material world for the observance of the Sabbath. (13) The "sanctification" (14) of a Sabbath territory through the processes of rabbinic urbanism has also had important implications for identity and experience, even during the regular days of the week when that territory is not ritually trafficked, as it is on the Sabbath.

Ethnographic Readings of a City

The current London eruv was not the first attempt to imagine that city as an arena for public Jewish ritual life. In 1977, prominent community leader Rabbi Elchanan Halpern, popularly known as Reb Chuna, produced a spatial program for the construction of an eruv in London. (15) His program was published in the form of a rabbinic responsum, which I interpret as an expression of his intentions for a part of the city and of his analysis of urban space and social life in light of those intentions. Halpern's extensive and detailed treatment of the problem is crafted in idiosyncratic Hebrew, in a difficult rabbinic shorthand directed toward an audience of expert insiders. He insisted that his responsum was meant to clarify the halakhic issues around building an eruv in London, and that it should not be regarded as a practical manual for doing so. Still, both his opening statement and the exhaustive detail with which he exposed the process of eruv-making suggest that Halpern wanted his responsum to be considered as the first decisive step toward the construction of an eruv in London. The goal implicit in producing the responsum was to persuade skeptical local rabbinic authorities to support an unprecedented and bold spatial move. The visionary-planner in the rabbi had conceived of a plan through which Jewish urbanites could enact their religious practices outside the spatially limited sphere of the domestic environment. His analysis focuses on the parts of the city that would contribute to making this new sphere--the eruv--and the features of the city that would pose challenges to it. Urban aesthetics, economics, and politics are generally unimportant to Halpern, whereas questions of transportation, recreation, housing, topography, and population are critical.

Halpern opened by using the language of commandment and invoking precedent:

   [W]e are commanded by our Sages to occupy ourselves with the
establishment of eruvin according to the laws fixed in many holy
texts. Because stumblers [Heb. makhshilim] profane the Sabbath
through the prohibited labor [mlakhah] of taking out and bringing
in from [one] domain to [another type of] domain and the sin of
carrying for four cubits [amot] in the public domain, our Rabbis
commanded [legislated] exhaustively regarding the protection of
the Holy Sabbath. Therefore, I will teach this chapter for legal
and not practical purposes, and may God help me not to stumble. (16)

His proposal for urban change, then, was not made casually. He understood the creation of an eruv to be a religious mandate enacted by the Sages as a reflection of God's will and applied to the material world by rabbis and their followers. Halpern's responsum paints a rich portrait of London observed through the lens of a particular religious sensibility. His goal was radical: to construct a collective Jewish private domain, a conceptual Jewish household that would encompass large sections of the modern, multiethnic city. Although his plan flew in the face of Enlightenment models of urban life and of current ideals about how religion should be practiced in London or, indeed, in any other modern city, Halpern proceeded to identify preexisting demographic, topographic, and architectural features of the city and to outline the methods by which these features could be reconceived or reconstructed to conform to Jewish spatial conventions. According to his proposal, elements of the city that were planned for aesthetic, utilitarian, or any other purpose could be integrated into the new Jewish plan for London. Halpern's program resulted in what architects have termed "paper architecture"--designs that remain on paper, unbuilt. It is important nonetheless because it articulates a Jewish vision of the city and because it anticipates and explores the spatial problems that the makers of the current London eruv would eventually need to solve. The first spatial ritual that Halpern considered was the theorizing of a perimeter, or mhitsah--literally, a partition--in rabbinic terminology.

The Hebrew and English terms each capture a nuance of the function of the perimeter. It would separate the new private domain from the larger area around it and enclose the newly formed community of Jewish dwellers within its new "home." Halpern analyzed the means by which the perimeter of the collective Jewish private domain could be constructed. In Jewish law, the creation of a Jewish private domain requires that part of the city be sectioned off from the area surrounding it by real, physical partitions, just as a house is separated from the outside by solid walls and windows and door openings that can be sealed. (17) The need to locate a perimeter led Halpern to examine the natural topography and urban infrastructure of London closely. He marked the location of the Jewish population that could be "housed" by the eruv. At that time, the Jewish population of London was approximately 280,000 and was largely concentrated in the area of the city north of the Thames. (18) Halpern's survey focused on creating a perimeter that would enclose the area roughly equivalent to the wards of Golder's Green and Hendon, both of which had significant Jewish populations.

Halpern's survey revealed that, in London, a set of urban features existed in a near-contiguous formation that would allow the relatively easy construction or assembly of an unbroken perimeter. These included icons such as the river Thames and the London Underground (subway) as well as more mundane objects such as utility poles and wires, river walls, and bridges, and natural features such as steep hills and deep ditches. (19) Jewish law requires near complete contiguity, and since not all of the designated urban elements in London were fully contiguous, Halpern relied on a body of spatial theory in which rabbinic planners had developed methods of constructing contiguity where there was none. Short segments--which Halpern, drawing on the language of the Mishnah, called gateways or doorways and which are known in Hebrew as tsurat ha-petah, or the shape of a doorway--would connect the noncontiguous sections, including the many bridges that breached the perimeter constituted by the river and river fences. In their simplest form, these segments could be constructed out of poles and wires that would span each gap and link up the designated elements. He noted that

   London is a city divided in two by means of a large river, and most
of the Jewish population resides in the section north of the
city.... [There are] bridges over the river that would require
amendment in the form of the "shape of doorways" or actual doorways
that lock.... And the east and west sides of the city are
surrounded] by fences of a height of 10 handbreadths [tfahim] that
extend alongside the train [subway] tracks, which is itself an
established fencing [perimeter] mechanism, because it extends
between a ditch that is 10 handbreadths deep or a hill that is 10
handbreadths high. And on the south side of the city one can also
find railway tracks to surround it [the eruv area] or the river,
in our section. And for whatever breaches exist, there is the
possibility of amending them by means of a "gateway" or
doors.... In our city there are good fences [alongside the
river] that constitute fit partitions. (20)

Much of Halpern's proposal was dedicated to a more challenging spatial problem: understanding how London might fit into a set of rabbinic legal definitions of private and public space that are specific to the Sabbath and its practices. At stake was not only the negotiation of shared urban space between Jews and non-Jews, or between religious and secular users, but also the implementation of a spatial paradigm developed within the rabbinic tradition on a potentially hostile urban site. This spatial paradigm presupposed definitions of public and private space that were generated in the context of a particular experience of space and time. However, these definitions--or at least aspects of them--were not shared by all Londoners, not even by all Jewish Londoners. For many Londoners observing the construction of the Northwest London eruv in the 1990s, there was a fundamental conflict between a communal Jewish space and common-law notions of private property or broader public us age. This disjuncture marked the territorial dispute that erupted when plans for an eruv were pursued in earnest.

Rabbinic notions of public and private space with respect to Sabbath practice have less to do with legal title or ownership, and more to do with the presence or absence of domestic space. The construction of an eruv assumes the domestication of nondomestic space, and rabbinic discourse expresses anxiety about the theoretical limits to the types of spaces that might be domesticated. (21) Halpern accepted the general principle that an eruv can never be built in a place that contains what rabbinic law considers an absolute public domain, a reshut ha-rabim doraita. (22) The specific characteristics and dimensions of such a domain were debated historically and continue to be debated, but the rabbinic and popular consensus in the late twentieth century was that a public domain is one that is so large, so populous, so open to human passage or so unbounded by roof, walls, or other enclosures that it would stretch the fiction of a Jewish communal household beyond plausibility.

According to a widely accepted halakhic definition cited by Halpern in his responsum, the minimum criterion for a public domain of the kind that would prevent the construction of an eruv was that it be a thoroughfare containing 600,000 people on any given day. This number, representing the idea of excessive population and thus excessive publicness, was not arbitrarily chosen. It is a symbolic number that provided Halpern and rabbinic theorists before him with a means of situating themselves within a larger narrative of Jewish history and of linking themselves to the myths of their past. Six hundred thousand was the fabled number of male Israelites imagined to have left Egypt at the time of the Exodus and to have been encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The idea is expressed in Rashi's commentary on Tractate Eruvin and accepted by many subsequent halakhists as authoritative:

   [A] public domain is understood to be one that is sixteen cubits
wide and a city with a population of six hundred thousand, that is
unwalled, that has a road that goes straight from one gate to the
other, and that is open like the encampments of the Israelites in
the desert. (23)

Halpern argued that the neighborhood he proposed to create would not be overly populous because, notwithstanding its then-current population of eight million in 1977, London did not contain a thoroughfare through which 600,000 people passed during a single day. (24)

According to Rashi's definition, a public domain might also consist of a wide, straight thoroughfare that spans a city from one side, or gate, to the other. Even a fleeting glance at a map of London would reveal that its streetscape not only lacks such a thoroughfare but almost seems to reject the idea of one. Unlike New York, which has a grid plan and many straight, highly trafficked streets, London's plan is irregular; it is virtually an anti-grid. The winding streets and many cul-de-sacs of the northern London suburbs were carefully designed at the turn of the twentieth century with the intention of minimizing traffic, controlling circulation, and creating "satisfactory street pictures." (25) Raymond Unwin, the master of modern urban planning responsible for the design of part of the area that would be enclosed by the eruv, used the latter term to mean streets that would appear beautiful, visually stimulating, and intimate in size and scale to a person walking along the street. (26) Unwin's pursuit of urban intimacy at the turn of the twentieth century parallels the vision of urban space elaborated by the makers of the eruv a century later. By implementing an eruv, Jews would alter the nature of the enclosed area, transforming a disparate collection of territories into a single domestic unit with some of the characteristics of a family home.

Streets were not the only element of the modern city form that Halpern reconceived in light of rabbinic spatial theory. At the time the earliest eruvin were delineated in rabbinic sources, the leisure park would not make its mark on cities for many centuries. The structure and use of the hundreds of urban parks in London were thus subject to lengthy analysis as Halpern sought to position them within preexisting rabbinic categories. The question for Halpern was whether London's gardens should be conceived of and classified primarily as spaces of labor (specifically the mlakhot forbidden on the Sabbath) or whether they should be treated primarily as spaces of leisure in which people sought to distance themselves from weekday labor and non-Sabbath activities. (27)

Halpern concluded that, at least at the time he was writing, most of the parks in London were of a domestic rather than an agricultural nature. They were not primarily spaces of labor even though considerable labor was involved in their cultivation. Rather, their purpose was to enhance the leisure and enjoyment of city dwellers. This was true for large, public parks as well as for the many smaller municipal or private parks. Halpern's approach echoes nineteenth-century planning theory, according to which landscaped, open, green spaces were viewed as a necessary complement and even a curative to densely crowded dwelling spaces. (28) As early as the eighteenth century, British prime minister William Pitt had called the capital's parks "the lungs of London." (29) Halpern determined that the area he was considering could be enclosed by a perimeter, redefined from Jewish practice and reconceived by Jews as an urban-scale collective home.

For all the complexity of his proposal and the commitment that underlay it, the Jewish communal dwelling that was eventually constructed was not the fruit of Halpern's efforts but was produced through a different set of impulses. Halpern became one of the foremost opponents of the current eruv. Issues of authority were at stake. Halpern felt usurped by the rabbinic authorities who took over the eruv planning process. Equally as important was the fact that the construction and planning of a space like an eruv on the scale envisioned by Halpern required a commitment to the uninhibited practice of religion in public space and in a public manner, with all the material and social consequences this would imply, and this was a commitment that he and his constituents seemed unprepared to make. The attenuated and conflict-riddled process of building what is now known as the Northwest London eruv showed that this kind of spatial endeavor demanded nothing less than the publicizing of individual and communal selves and the courage to argue (literally and by building the eruv) that spatial rituals of an explicitly religious nature need be accorded legitimacy in the sphere of urban production.

Spatial Actors and Ordinary Rituals

The production of what is known as the Northwest London eruv involved a major ideological and material reinvention of an extensive segment of the city. In 1987 a charismatic local rabbi, Rabbi Alan Kimche, embarked on this urban initiative, acting in response to requests from his congregation. This new project differed from Halpern's in two important ways. First, a critical mass of London's Jewish population was prepared, at this point, to embrace public religious practice. Second, the occasion to redefine the scope of Jewish ritual and the provision of an enlarged domain for doing so provided an opportunity to reverse gendered spatializations that had effectively bound many women with small children to their houses on the Sabbath. Although eruvin were not originally the product of feminist impulses, the concerns and the voices of women were foregrounded in the case of the London eruv.

A sense of entitlement to public space and to a role in the public sphere in general by Jewish women is no historical novelty. The public, ritualized activity of Jewish women and their ritual practices within a rabbinic spatial framework is more exceptional. While, as Daniel Boyarin has argued, rabbinic culture has strongly endorsed the image of the feminized Jewish male, it is much more ambiguous about the image of Jewish women acting outside of their own houses. (30) The specific problem in London was that, since babies and toddlers can be neither carried nor pushed in a stroller outside a rabbinically defined private domain, or from a private domain to a public domain, the women who remain the primary caregivers to these children have been excluded from important aspects of Sabbath life. At the end of the twentieth century, these religiously observant women in London decided to publicize their desire to navigate the city more freely on the Sabbath and to penetrate the institutions and ritual spaces from which they had previously been excluded by the constraints of a Sabbath without an eruv. As they did in the synagogue, women longed to commune with friends and family in other private homes where the Sabbath was celebrated. (31) The power of the eruv for these women was that it would allow them to move freely outside of their houses and to navigate the city while remaining within conceptually domestic space. They could reclaim the city and its spaces in a way that was fully sanctioned by their religious tradition, without having to sacrifice their adherence to Jewish law to their belief in their legitimate right to urban space.

Producing an eruv on the massive scale intended by Kimche and his supporters forced the project out of a strictly Jewish or halakhic planning context and into the truly public domain. The second proposal for a London eruv was outlined in a set of planning applications submitted to the Borough of Barnet between 1991 and 2002. All of the construction details, along with a definition and brief history of eruvin, were outlined in a planning proposal and submitted to the Barnet Council in February 1991. The result was a historically exceptional meeting of the minds involved with what was, in fact, a halakhic planning project that had spatial, structural, and social implications for Londoners outside the potential eruv-using community. In preparation for submitting their proposal, the eruv committee members hired an American eruv specialist, Rabbi Shimon Eider, to help them survey the area. Eider reaffirmed Halpern's position that an enlarged Jewish private domain could be constructed in this part of London. In spatial terms, this meant that the area was not and did not contain an absolute public domain, and that the elements of a potential perimeter had been located. Rabbi Eider was delighted to find that British backyards are typically fully enclosed by fencing. The continuous line of preexisting back fences, he suggested, could easily be appropriated to form part of the eruv perimeter. (32)

By the early 1990s, the United Synagogue, the most prominent among a limited number of umbrella organization for British Jewry, had been drawn into the project, at least in part to confer it with greater legitimacy and to establish its institutional face. The head of the country's highest rabbinical court, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, brought halakhic guidance to the determined group of volunteers who constituted the eruv committee. The core of the group responsible for turning the project from abstract morphology into reality included two lawyers, a businessman, an urban planner, an engineer, two rabbis, and a financial consultant. When the project began, these individuals could not have suspected that the bulk of their leisure time and a significant proportion of their work time for the better part of the next decade would be spent reconfiguring the existing urban environment to conform to the ritual and social needs of their religious practice.

The committee began with the ritual of defining a border and working out the details of the physical perimeter. Among their goals were to enclose an area that would be usable by the greatest number of Jews and to make that area easily identifiable by users without reference to complicated maps. (33) Yet they also wanted the perimeter to be invisible and unobtrusive to nonusers. London's street signs lent themselves well to this endeavor, because every street sign is marked with the postal code of the district in which it stands. The eruv boundary would cover the four London postal districts with the highest concentration of Jews in the city. Even children could locate themselves with reference to this system of urban iconography. The head of the committee claimed, "If I tell you that you can carry anywhere in NW11, you don't need any other information." (34) The system had the advantage of being commonsensical and familiar; eruv users were already literally and figuratively at home in the areas designated by the postal codes.

Full Size PictureAlthough this approach to boundary definition was elegant from the perspective of communal use, it was extremely vague for the purposes of Jewish law. It took the next several years for a rabbinic expert and an engineer to refine earlier notions of a perimeter and create a structure that would conform to strict halakhic standards. Ensuring that there was physical continuity among sometimes unconjoined urban elements, finding and marking the position of gaps, and providing solutions to the gaps entailed a kind of urban archaeology--a great deal of hiking, searching, driving, and exploring--and proved a challenging and time-consuming process. On several occasions, borrowed elements of the perimeter were unwittingly torn down and/or replaced with ineffectual structures (from the perspective of Jewish law), reflecting the normal pace of change in any city. When, for example, the Tesco Supermarket chain constructed a pedestrian entry in the fence that separated their property from the M1 Motorway (see Figure 1), or when a house and its back fence were demolished, the changes had to be weighed in light of their impact on the eruv perimeter, because the perimeter relied on the continuity of those fences. (35)

Keeping in mind the need for real, material border-markers and the need to minimize those markers visually, the east and west sides of the perimeter were the easiest ones to construct. Existing landscape features were simply appropriated and conceptually transformed for the purposes of the eruv. The fence along the M1 Motorway was appropriated for the west side of the perimeter. On the northeastern side, the eruv planners incorporated the steep embankment and fences running alongside the Northern Line of the London Underground from the Mill Hill East station to the East Finchley station (see Figure 2). On the north side, the fences of the A1 Motorway and the fences of the private Hendon Gold Course provided preexisting perimeter material. The rest of the perimeter was more complex, being partially borrowed and partially constructed. As already mentioned, London's domestic architecture and landscape arrangements were well suited to the continuity of form that Jewish law required. Often whole blocks of houses were appropriated for the perimeter. Where a street broke the continuity, a modern version of the mishnaic tsurat ha-petah, or gate way, was constructed as a bridge for the gap. Rabbinic theorists argue that, since a door opening in a wall is still considered an integral part of that wall and not a true break or breach, a conceptual doorway could be considered part of the perimeter wall without breaking it. (36)

Full Size Picture

The committee engineer drew up a set of detailed plans in which the precise location of each doorway was located. Each doorway consisted of two poles linked by a wire. Different pole-and-wire combinations were chosen, with careful attention to their urban contexts. Small tubular steel posts, identical to traffic posts, would be used on regular streets. Medium-size posts, like street lighting columns, painted dark olive green, would be placed in leafy wooded areas. Posts to be placed along the highways would be as tall and finished in the same way as preexisting ones. Strong but thin nylon wire would be run between each pair of posts. In some cases, there were several doorways in sequence.

Wildwood Road, along the southern perimeter of the eruv, ran through a section of the Hampstead Heath, one of London's historic green spaces, which contained no domestic structures or fences that could be borrowed for the perimeter. A totally new set of objects--a sequence of wooden poles and nearly invisible wire--was therefore introduced into the landscape in a process that eventually became the focus of anti-eruv rhetoric and a public critique by those who interpreted the objects as decontextualized and decontextualizing (see Figure 3). Poles and wires, it was argued, would add nothing to the visual beauty of the Hampstead Heath and could possibly damage the trees of the historic landscape. (37)

If fences, tram lines, poles, wires, and houses required imaginative transformation for inclusion in an eruv perimeter, then the highways and cars that traveled inside the perimeter also had to be reinterpreted carefully. In order to ensure that the perimeter would not encompass a public domain, the eruv committee obtained statistical confirmation from the Ministry of Transport that the greatest number of cars on the M1 Motorway (which is inside the eruv perimeter) on a single day was 70,000. Multiplied by four passengers, the number was still far below the halakhic upper limit of 600,000. Thus, it could not be claimed that the highway, at least by virtue of population, was a public domain. And in any case, Kimche observed, according to Jewish law, cars are technically private domains:

   [A] car, really, in terms of eruvin, is something new ... a car is
a separate domain. So a car, in terms of eruvin, is not part of the
reshut ha rabim. It is in fact a mini reshut ha yachid, a mini
private domain in the middle of the public domain. It is a private
area because it is more than ten handbreadths, and it is surrounded
by walls. Therefore, you are in a private domain, even though you
are moving and even though you are on the street. But in terms of
the laws of eruvin, you can have 500,000 people in cars going down
a particular road, but no one is in the road. (38)

Full Size PictureThis was an example of imaginative rabbinic interpretation in the application of ancient principles of location and measurement to a contemporary spatial and social problem. Kimche admitted that this (the status of cars and human population on a highway) was "a debated issue," and there were certainly dissenting rabbinic voices in London. (39)

Representations and Responses

Urban space is always shared space, and, accordingly, the reception of any new urban space constitutes an important dimension of its production. This is especially true for an urban space like the London eruv, which challenges the established cultural and religious "rules" of its ideological and material setting. Although it would be beyond the scope of this article to excavate a complete history of those who observed, used, apprehended, loved, hated, and were baffled by the London eruv, I will draw out two competing strands of the reception of this space as an example of the multiplicity of experiences that any given space can generate.

Having made every effort to ensure either the invisibility of the perimeter or at least a sensitive integration into the surrounding landscape, the eruv makers were unprepared for the intensity of some of the responses to their urban vision. In evocative images published in the local and national popular press, Jews were often portrayed as aggressively claiming the space of the street simply by walking in it, and doing so as Jews, identifiable by their customary garb and by the ritual items they carried on the Sabbath. (40) A photograph published in the Daily Mail in 1994 was borrowed from film stills of Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List and printed above the headline "The danger of creating your own ghettoes." The author, a former Shadow Cabinet minister, made a sinister comparison between the act of eruv-making and the Nazi construction of European ghettoes. The photograph suggested that eruv users could be likened to the victims of the Holocaust whom Schindler attempted to save. In the Daily Mail image, Schindler's proteges were depicted as powerless, impoverished, and crowded ghetto dwellers, an image that plays on negative and even frightening images of enclosure. The author's intent was that, by analogy, eruv-using Jews should be perceived in this way. Although eruv makers argued for the eruv as a space of liberation, opponents chose to interpret it as one of restriction. Holocaust survivors wrote statements about how, for them, the poles and wires of the eruv invoked visions of concentration camp fences. Other Holocaust survivors denied this image, engaging in a debate that highlighted the formal ambiguity of the structure and its openness to a variety of interpretations. (41)

Where eruv builders had invoked the rhetoric of unity--of couples, family, and community--opponents decried the emphasis on religious differences that they felt was sure to flow from the explicit demarcation of boundary lines and ritual space in the landscape. In letters to the editor and photographic images, gentile suburbanites portrayed themselves and were portrayed as upper-middle-class, law-abiding citizens bewildered by what they perceived to be an unnecessary religious accommodation. In articles, maps, and sketches, the eruv was represented as a highly visible, public, physically daunting symbol of Jewish presence, to be tended and repaired when damaged by subservient gentiles, a hazard to animal life, and a blight on what was once a pastoral scene. (42) Eruv makers and their supporters, in contrast, consistently minimized the materiality of the eruv in their public discussions and written descriptions of it. They clearly saw the eruv territory as their urban communal home, but it was, and remains, a home they were happily willing to share with non-Jews and Jews of all kinds. (43)

Many years of debate, planning, and delay notwithstanding, the eruv was finally completed in February 2003. Once the municipal permissions had been obtained and the perimeter constructed, rabbinic authorities transacted a token rental of the space inside the perimeter with a public representative. (44) Following the recital of a blessing over a communal meal, the eruv was activated and available for Sabbath and holiday usage. In a public speech attended by over a thousand people, Ehrentreu described his ideal experience of the urban amenity as being within the limits prescribed by Jewish law, though he could not hope to control the actions of individual users. In a public speech delivered days before the eruv was first enacted, he emphasized the spatial freedoms the new site would afford women, though he quoted no rabbinic source material in support of his claim. (45) His own halakhic writings on the London eruv, currently in the process of publication, may be the first to be cited in this way.


Jewish life in general and ritual practice in particular, in London and elsewhere, has consistently incorporated and depended on the city as material culture. Jews have established their urban presence not only by building urban-scale eruvs, as they have over the past two centuries, but also by circulating in city streets, dwelling in houses and neighborhoods, playing in parks, worshipping in formal and informal houses of prayer, and participating in the work life of cities. They have interacted with other urbanites who shared the space of the city with them. We can add to all of these action statements that Jews now carry material objects on the Sabbath through the streets of London in a mode prescribed by precedent and by Jewish law. It is thus ironic that Judaism's normative expressions have often denied the importance of things visual, spatial, and material, and have ignored the urban context altogether.

The Northwest London eruv is a set of powerful nonverbal statements through which London's rabbinic Jews have projected themselves onto the cityscape. Its features include the use of urban fabric to create distinction, a dialogue with Jewish tradition in the fashioning of a place, and an antimaterialism expressed in forms that are often invisible, moveable, structurally insubstantial, or temporary. The eruv as a form of rabbinic urbanism emphasizes domesticity on both the traditional scale of the house and the expanded scale of the urban neighborhood. It is communal in that it creates and reinforces community, and it is ritual and legal in that it designates sites in the city for Jewish practice. Jews mark urban material culture linguistically by using Hebrew and sometimes Yiddish words and rabbinic idioms to identify structures and places. In London, the Jews who made the eruv did so in dialogue with their textual and oral traditions. The construction and use of the eruv created a communal place that was so much a part of the modern city that its multiple meanings might easily have gone undetected by nonusers.

London Jews named the eruv and its parts with their holy language, sanctified the process with a blessing, and now weekly perform the ordinary rituals of walking and carrying within its boundaries. Rabbinic urbanism does not deny material culture; rather, it embraces it on a grand urban scale. The eruv as both an action statement and an artifact claimed the city for Jews and presented an argument for Jews as legitimate actors in and on the city. It has been said of Jews that, from their perspective, fulfilling the commandments was the loving service of God. (46) By co-opting London as the site of their eruv, twenty-first century Jews enlisted the modern city in their divine service. This article has only begun the work of looking at urban artifacts and rituals as the markers of Jewish identity. Given the long history of Jewish urban life, much remains to be done.


(1) My informants have requested that the precise details of the domain rental, the technical name of which is "skhirah," not be published at this time, because opponents of the eruv remain active.

(2) I thank David Henkin, whose feedback was invaluable in the process of refining my ideas about rabbinic urbanism.

(3) Although there have been important instances and distinct typologies of nonurban Jewish settlement, Jewish practice since the rabbinic period has been informed by the density of population and the variety of social and ritual forms characteristic of cities. The kibbutz, the moshav, and the shtetl are three prominent nonurban examples of Jewish settlement types. See Aryei Fishman, Judaism and Collective Life: Self and Community in the Religious Kibbutz (London, 2002); Henry Near, The Kibbutz Movement: A History, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1992-99); Dov Weintraub, Moshava, Kibbutz, and Moshav: Patterns of Jewish Rural Settlement and Development in Palestine (Ithaca, N.Y., 1969); Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, eds., The Shtetl: Image and Reality. Papers of the Second Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish (Oxford, 2000).

(4) Arnold Eisen, Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community (Chicago, 1997), 17. Vanessa Ochs also explores Jewish ritual from a material culture perspective; see Ochs, "What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?" Journal for the Study of Religion and Material Culture (Spring 1999),, and Ochs, "Women and Ritual Artifacts," in Women of the Wall: Claiming Ground at Judaism's Holy Site, ed. Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut (Woodstock, Vt., 2003).

(5) My practice-based theory of urbanism owes a heavy debt to the work of Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, 1991), and Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, 1994).

(6) See Dell Upton, "The City as Material Culture," in The Art and Mystery of Historical Archaeology: Essays in Honor of James Deetz, ed. Anne Elizabeth Yentsch and Mary C. Beaudry (Boca Raton, Fla., 1992), and Rhys Isaac, "Discourse on Method," in his The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982).

(7) The above work, in which Isaac's theory is best expressed, takes on both a premodern and a nonurban subject. I am paraphrasing Isaac's description of architecture here (Isaac, Transformation, 351).

(8) Upton's definition of material culture builds directly on that of James Deetz. See Upton, "City as Material Culture," and James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten (New York, 1977), 24-25.

(9) "Bodies-in-space" is a phrase I have borrowed from Upton; see ibid.

(10) See the responsum of R. Yaacov Reischer of Worms to R. Shlomo ben Mordechai of Lissa, the Rabbi of Rotterdam, in Yaacov Reischer, Shvut yaakov sheelot utshuvot, vol. 3 (Lemberg, 1860), 28; the responsum of R. Shmuel Kaidonover of Vilna in Emunat shmuel (1648-49; reprint Bene Barak, 1999), 40; and Raphael Evers, Sheelot u-tshuvot ve-shav verafa (Jerusalem, 1994). Contemporary usage of the word "eruv" involves a misnomer. It means "mixture" or "blending" in Hebrew, and in the Mishnah and Talmud it refers to the process of amalgamating disparate private spaces into one larger, conceptual household within a designated boundary. See Charlotte Fonrobert, "From Separatism to Urbanism: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Rabbinic Eruv," Dead Sea Discoveries 11, no. 1 (2004): 43-71.

(11) These questions are central to the work of Cynthia Baker in her book Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architecture of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford, 2002).

(12) On the texture of daily life, see Galit Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Life (Stanford, 2002); Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tales of the Neighborhood Jewish Narrative Dialogues in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2003); Baker, Rebuilding the House of Israel; and Miriam B. Peskowitz, Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History (Berkeley, 1997).

(13) The growing literature on how the eruv has played out in modern cities includes Sophie Calle, L'erouve de Jerusalem (Arles, 1996); Davina Cooper, "Talmudic Territory? Space, Law and Modernist Discourse, "Journal of Law and Society 23 (Dec. 1996): 529-48; Alan Dundes, The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character (Lanham, Md., 2002), 45-50; Fonrobert, "From Separatism to Urbanism"; Manuel Herz and Eyal Weizman, "Between City and Desert: Constructing the North London Eruv," AA Files 34 (Fall 1997); Adam Mintz, "The St. Louis Eruv: Social Realities and Early American Orthodox Judaism" (unpublished paper, 2002) ; and Oliver Valins, "Institutionalized Religion: Sacred Texts and Jewish Spatial Practice," Geoforum 31 (2000): 575-86.

(14) I use the term "sanctification" here to mean a place made meaningful through the repeated enactment of a set of rituals. I specifically do not mean to imply that it is sacred in the Eliadian tradition of a "hierophany" (a place in which the divine was made manifest).

(15) Elchanan Halpern, "Tshuvah be-tikun eruvin," in his Yagdil torah (London, 1977). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Hebrew sources are mine.

(16) Ibid., 1.

(17) Ibid., 1-6.

(18) Stanley Waterman, "The 'return' of the Jews into London," in London: The Promised Land?, ed. Anne Kershen (Avebury, 1997), 143-60.

(19) Halpern, "Tshuvah," 1-3.

(20) Ibid., 7. "Ten handbreadths" is a halakhic measurement indicating the minimum height for demarcating a private space.

(21) A classic example is bEruvin 6a. On the interpretation of the eruv as a domestication of the neighborhood, see also Charlotte Fonrobert in her article in this issue.

(22) Halpern, "Tshuvah," 1.

(23) Rashi on Eruvin, 6a.

(24) Halpern, "Tshuvah," 1.

(25) Raymond Unwin, Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs (London, 1909).

(26) Ibid. For a discussion of Unwin's vision in the context of early modern planning, see Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped: The Elements of Urban Form Through History (Boston, 1992).

(27) Halpern, "Tshuvah," 12.

(28) See, e.g., Frederick Law Olmstead, "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns," in The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces, ed. Nathan Glazer and Mark Lilla (New York, 1987), 222-63, and Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rozenzweig, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York, 1994).

(29) William Windham, Speech in the House of Commons, June 30, 1808. Windham attributed the reference to Sir William Pitt (1708-78).

(30) Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male (Berkeley, 1997). Cynthia Baker has examined the nature of public and private space and women's behavior in it in Rebuilding the House of Israel.

(31) The images and texts of the following were part of publicizing the eruv. See "Sabbath Setback," Times of London, Feb. 25, 1993, sec. 5, p. 1; "A Matter of 85 Poles on Top of the 50,000 Already There," Ham and High, Jan. 29, 1993, p. 8; and "Beautiful to Be Out," Edgeware Times, Mar. 6, 2003, n.p.

(32) Member of the Northwest London Eruv Committee, interviews with the author, London, England, May and June 2003, and personal correspondence with the author, 2001-4.

(33) Ibid. Interviews with local users showed that the official eruv map, which was published and widely distributed, and the maps that appeared on the eruv Web site,, were seldom consulted. Many felt confident that their Sabbath perambulations would take place well within the limits of the perimeter, and that they therefore did not need to know precisely where the boundaries lay.

(34) Head of the Northwest London Eruv Committee, interviews with the author, London, England, May and June 2003, and personal correspondence with the author, 2001-4.

(35) Member of the Northwest London Eruv Committee, interviews and personal correspondence (see note 32 above).

(36) Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, The Contemporary Eruvin: Eruvin in Modern Metropolitan Areas (New York, 1984).

(37) "Poles Apart: Who Killed the Eruv," New Moon (Apr. 1993); "Members fear 'double standard' of the eruv," Ham and High, Mar. 5, 1993, p. 10; Opinions page, Ham and High, Aug. 2, 1992, p. 13.

(38) Rabbi Alan Kimche, interview with the author, London, England, June 9, 2003.

(39) Ibid. See also the notice forbidding the use of the eruv, published in Ha-modia, Feb. 28, 2003, p. 8. The notice was posted in local synagogues and published in other local newspapers around the time that the Northwest London eruv was inaugurated.

(40) See the images that accompany the article "Wanted: Home with Eruv, with 20ft Poles," Daily Telegraph, Property sec., pp. 3-4.

(41) Opinions page, Ham and High, beginning in Sept. 1992 and continuing over the next several years. See, e.g., the Opinions page on Apr. 12, 1992, Oct. 2, 1992, or Sept. 17, 1993. Ham and High is a local newspaper published and sold in North London. Although its editor denied the charge, eruv makers perceived its editorial position to be actively anti-eruv.

(42) "A Community Divided: The Battle Over Six Square Miles of North London," Guardian, sec. 2, Feb. 24, 1993; Ham and High, Aug. 2, 2002, p. 13.

(43) Ham and High, Sept. 23, 1994, n.p.; Oct. 2, 1992, Opinions page; Nov. 6, 1992, Opinions page.

(44) See note 1, above.

(45) The speech can be heard at

(46) This phrase was inspired by the writings of theologian Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 1951-63), 2: 93. I thank Rabbi Eli Braun for introducing me to this aspect of Tillich's work.

Jennifer Cousineau, "Rabbinic Urbanism in London: Rituals and the Material Culture of the Sabbath," Jewish Social Studies 11, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2005): 36-57

Article A137454250

About Expanded Academic ASAP Thomson - Gale logo Copyright and Terms of Use