Fictions of Fictions
Piper Bernbaum on the material facts and urban fictions of the Eruv wars in Jerusalem
It is Shabbat. I have arrived on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, having taken the sherut (city-to-city mini-bus) from Tel Aviv, and am now waiting for a ride to the nearby neighbourhood of Kiryat Yovel for a self-directed walking tour. The streets are empty, no stores are open, and scarcely anyone is out and about. Even the famous Mahane Yehuda market is closed; the delicious smells and vibrant music that usually permeate its alleys and market are nonexistent. The Sabbath has a serious influence on the city. It is a day of observance and prayer based on a unique set of religious laws. Jerusalem holds to this contract of observance; on Shabbat, the religious day of rest, the city is at its most sacred.1
I had come to Jerusalem to observe its Eruv and to learn more about the fraught history of Eruv wars in the city.
Shabbat (Hebrew), Shabbos (Yiddish) and the Sabbath (English) are interchangeable terms in the Jewish faith to commemorate God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in six days with a day of rest on the seventh day of the week. Shabbat is a day of rest from work and business observed every week beginning at sunset on Friday evening until sunset on Saturday evening. Observance of Shabbat is the fourth of the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites by God after their exodus from Egypt. ↩
I fell in love with the Eruv in North America. I bounced between Manhattan and Brooklyn, Boston and Buffalo, Toronto, and Montreal, to experience the Eruv, a beautiful, light artifact that painted a picture of survival, maintenance, self-determination, care, community, respect, tolerance, and simplicity. Every wire I encountered told me a story of a community, their needs, and the way they had lovingly cared for the everydayness of their city. The exchanges and negotiations the Eruv activates between a community and its city model possibilities for a pluralistic and supportive world. Ultimately, the Eruv creates a space of tolerance, and I happily get caught up in the urban optimism it represents. Yet as my mind returns to the bench I sit upon on Jaffa Street, I begin to realize that the Eruv is entirely different in Jerusalem.
For some time, I had wondered if all of Israel could be considered an Eruv. Its borders are fortified by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and border crossings, walls, gates, and patrolled checkpoints around the rest. In a map of Jerusalem I found reading through artist Sophie Calle’s book L’Erouv de Jérusalem, a line depicted a winding, massive boundary that traced the city’s rolling hills.1 It made sense to me that a devout city would want an all-encompassing Eruv to encircle most neighbourhoods for the benefit of its religious residents. Eruvin are always understated and purposely difficult to find. They blend into their contexts and surroundings and often develop out of already existing infrastructure. But, after years seeking out these boundaries, I now know what to look for to spot their subtleties. However, when I arrived in Jerusalem, I encountered pieces and components of the Eruv that lead to dead ends and unfinished boundaries. I had to pay attention to find the traces of Eruvin in Jerusalem since I could not trace their limits. Here, Eruvin were haphazardly built, oddly located, and often incomplete, and they certainly did not define a kosher (enclosed) religious space. Fishing wire blows in the wind and tethers to posts and fences, its open and broken edges creating fragmented boundaries along highways and streets—remnants of the Eruv, or something that resembled it. For most, such traces of the Eruv are unnoticeable, but for me, it was strange to see something that had seemed to be so sacred and rare as so abundant, abandoned, and mostly dysfunctional.
Sophie Calle, L’Erouv de Jérusalem (Arles: Actes Sud, 2002). ↩
I tried to find answers in Jerusalem. As soon as I started to pull on the figurative Eruv thread coursing through the city, an entire tapestry began to unravel. I found many examples of humble and well-maintained Eruvin around some neighbourhoods and privatized religious communities, but few were close to the city centre. They often encircled a gated neighbourhood and served a small community (such as Beit Me’ir) that maintained its boundaries independently, or wrapped themselves around small religious enclaves and newly-built neighborhoods.
Within Jerusalem, a history of Eruv wars and untrustworthy bonds has led to a mess of non-functional Eruvin strewn throughout the city.1 I had the privilege of speaking to a handful of people involved in the Eruv wars, which occur between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities; each had strong opinions regarding the role of the Eruv. Secular communities claim that ultra-religious communities use Eruvin to take over established neighbourhoods for territorial expansion. Secular neighbourhoods like Kiryat Yovel aren’t concerned by the presence of different religious groups but believe the ultra-religious want to push out other residents to control the schools and public transportation, making the area uninviting. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox claim that the Eruv is their religious right and makes religious shared spaces more accessible and the city more devout, regardless of who lives there. Questions arise as to why a boundary would be desired in a small neighbourhood without a large ultra-orthodox community. Here, the Eruv transformed from a practice of leniency and acceptance into a practice of conflict, suspicion, and exclusion. The secular communities report, tear down, and vandalize the boundaries when they appear in their neighbourhoods without notice or permission, and the ultra-Orthodox communities repeatedly establish new, rogue Eruvin in the same areas, without necessarily intending for them to be completed or used. Activists on both sides used highly unusual techniques to reshape and change how the Eruv exists: making it more visible, layering multiple Eruvin together, hanging signage in protest, and demanding bus and train services change to respect the religious nature of the neighbourhood. In a place already so fraught over territorial practices, I was disheartened to see the Eruv deployed as a tool for division instead of symbolic inclusion.
As I drove from one neighbourhood to the next with my translator in tow and my camera slung over my shoulder, I was baffled to observe how the Eruv transformed into the most derivative form of architecture before my eyes. First, the Eruv formed a symbolic extension of the home woven through city walls. Then, the Eruv become a stealth form of urbanism across the Diaspora that reinterpreted everyday materials into architectonic forms. Then, as a tool used to claim space, the Eruv became a means of religious survival. The Eruv, which had always been synonymous with the notion of shelter and corresponded to the most basic formal conception of architecture as a space with walls, openings, and a roof for protection, now only evidenced a fraught history. It became an act of claiming territory, with its boundary signifying the control of space instead of the trust and diverse needs between pluralistic communities.
Yair Ettinger, “Rift Has Roots in Eruv Dispute,” Haaretz.com, February 22, 2010, https://www.haaretz.com/2010-02-22/ty-article/rift-has-roots-in-eruv-dispute/0000017f-f88b-d2d5-a9ff-f88f2acc0000; VINnews, “Jerusalem — Activists: Police Waging War against Secular Protesting Charedi Eruv,” VINnews, February 21, 2010, https://vinnews.com/2010/02/21/jerusalem-activists-police-waging-war-against-secular-protesting-charedi-eruv/. ↩
In my many discussions with individuals involved in the Eruv wars, I asked about the leases signed with the city and the planning permits used to establish the Eruv within communities. This is common in North America and what makes it such a pluralistic practice. I asked: how was its contract formed? How were negotiations handled? In all cases, I received blank stares. These are not practices in Jerusalem—no lease, no permit, no negotiations. I was informed that, historically, one large Eruv in Jerusalem could be shared across many synagogues and communities, but now an unknown number of Eruvin manically overlap with this boundary, most of which are not documented or widely shared. Why? Because the communities do not trust one another to maintain the Eruv and to ensure the space remains kosher for use. Most Eruvin in Jerusalem seemingly exist out of self-concern instead of in the interest of collective care.
In Jerusalem, the Eruv still re-figures territory, but I believe these posts that I traced around the city and through the Eruv war regions are not Eruvin. At this point, the Eruv has become something else entirely. I believe that the values of the Eruv were always rooted in an act of participation, even in the early Talmudic interpretations. But without the ability or desire to negotiate its existence between people and place, the real and the symbolic, and context and commitment through contracts and agreements, the Eruv in Jerusalem is, perhaps, more fiction than legal fiction.