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The art of the eruv

Yale mounts three exhibits exploring a little known Jewish ritual   

By Cindy Mindell

“Eruov de Jerusalem” by Sophie Calle

NEW HAVEN – Photographer and professor Margaret Olin has been interested in the eruv for more than a decade — since she developed and taught “Visualized Communities,” a course exploring the many ways in which communities identity themselves. Olin first learned about the eruv – “which I didn’t know about while growing up, even though I am Jewish,” she says – from “Erouv de Jerusalem,” an installation by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle. Her interest deepened as she referenced that installation in her class, and became aware of other artists exploring the subject.
After connecting with several of those artists, Olin decided to dedicate the 2011 issue of “Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture,” an annual publication she edits, to the subject.
Then the idea came up to turn the subject of the special issue into an exhibition.
Together with three venues on campus, Olin developed three different but related exhibits on various aspects of the eruv. The result, “Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv,” weaves through the Yale campus like the ritual enclosure itself, bringing together 10 artists from the U.S., France, and Israel in a communal conversation.

“This Token Partnership” at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
The Yale Institute of Sacred Music chose to present one part of the exhibition as the inaugural show in its new gallery. “This Token Partnership: The Materiality of a Jewish Spatial Practice,” in the ISM Gallery for Sacred Arts through Dec. 14, is a two-part show exploring what it takes to create an eruv and the issues raised by its existence in a community. Works in various media by several artists explore the materiality and the language of the eruv: the play between the eruv’s visibility and invisibility, its intricate semiotics, and its status as symbolic architecture. Artists focus on the material eruv: fittings, the measurements of eruv territory, and the mixtures of food that symbolize the partnership.
“The thinking process that you have to go through when you’re creating an eruv and when you’re deciding whether to participate in an eruv is a learning experience for the Divinity School community as well as everybody else who wants to understand the eruv in greater depth,” Olin says.
Olin’s own photographs of the Yale eruv, installed in the entrance hallway and coupled with explanatory texts ranging from Maimonides to reader responses to a recent article in the “New Haven Independent,” serve as an introduction to the purpose and materiality of the eruv.
The exhibition space contains a variety of works. Pittsburgh artist Ben Schachter creates embroidered paintings of eruv maps throughout the world. The delicate taut threads sewn into canvas represent eruv lines stiffly wending their way through space from pole to pole, adapting themselves to man-made or geographical oddities in the cityscape. They speak to the eruv drawing’s sensitivity to the urban landscape that it traverses and unifies, forming an urban collage.
Boston artist Suzanne Silver’s installation, “Kafka in Space (Parsing the Eruv)” is inspired by an interest in the eruv as a semiotic code, but also brings out the dystopic notion of the eruv suggested in Franz Kafka’s aphorism, “The true path leads across a rope that is not suspended on high, but close to the ground. It seems more intended to make people stumble than to be walked upon.”
A site-specific installation by Ellen Rothenberg explores the making of an eruv and the consequences of living within one. The work addresses the differences between public and private spaces, mixing quotations from Maimonides about the eruv and instructions posted along the modern-day New Haven eruv. The centerpiece of the work, “The 24-Hour Mobile Home,” includes a table laid with plates and matza, referencing the instructions for eruv tavshilin, a special “mixture of foods” permitting one to prepare food for Shabbat on a festival day for Shabbat, when the festival occurs on Friday. Shirts with their pockets sewn closed reflect the prohibition against carrying things in one’s pockets on Shabbat, juxtaposed with a display of backpacks adorned with the items a non-eruv user might carry.
Elliott Malkin’s “Modern Orthodox” is a laser eruv whose beam changes throughout the day and is transmitted to a TV monitor. The work, a non-wire eruv, references the scientific debate about light’s material and non-material properties, raising the question, is a laser-delineated eruv kosher?

“Erouv de Jerusalem” at the Yale Art School
Yale Art School Dean Robert Storr was interested in borrowing “Erouv de Jerusalem;” he had worked with Calle while curating part of the 2007 Venice Biennale. “Internal Borders” runs through Nov. 30 in the school’s 32 Edgewood Gallery.
Calle’s installation consists of a table map of the Jerusalem eruv, surrounded by photographs of Jerusalem eruv poles. Calle asked Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem to show her the public places that they regard as private. Photographs of these places and the stories Calle was told about them are also included in the work. Calle’s piece is paired with “Turbulent,” a double-projection video installation of two singers, by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, that explores the impassable boundary between men and women in Iran.

“Israel: Gated Community” at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life
The Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale was interested in part of the show to complement their new arts program. “Israel: Gated Community” runs through Nov. 11 and includes works by three artists of differing political persuasions who use the eruv as a way to talk about the relationship between Jews and Arabs and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The theme of the show is a play on the idea of the eruv as symbolic gates.
Landscape photographer Alan Cohen photographed eruvim in Me’ah She’arim,
the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. Pro-settler artist Avner Bar-Hama creates a graphic map of Israel using eruv poles to show the loss of Jewish settlements in disputed territories and the fragility of what he regards as God’s promise to the Jews. Daniel Bauer’s panoramic photographs of eruvim in the territories show how the eruv boundaries of Gilo and Modiin, nearly invisible themselves, work to render invisible whole olive groves, roads, and once-thriving communities of the area’s former inhabitants.
“The eruv can be interpreted in a lot of different ways and, in thinking about it, I decided that a lot of the artists’ personal stories were about borders and crossing boundaries of individual kinds that are somehow marked by social circumstances,” Olin says.
This is the first exhibition Olin has curated at Yale since she arrived in 2009, after 20 years on faculty at the School of the Art Institute the of Chicago.
“My interest in the eruv comes out of my interest in the way communities represent themselves,” she says. “I’m hoping that this work will spark interest in Jewish visual culture of various kinds in a more subtle way than has been done so far.”
In putting together the exhibition, Olin consulted with the former and current Orthodox rabbis at the Slifka Center, Jason Rappoport and Noah Cheses. “They and a number of other Orthodox rabbis in New Haven involved with the local eruvim have all seen the show,” she says. “My report from Noah is that they found it really interesting because they don’t think of the eruv in art.”

“This Token Partnership: The Materiality of a Jewish Spatial Practice” through
Dec. 14 at ISM Gallery for Sacred Arts, 409 Prospect St.; (203) 436-5955

“Internal Borders” through Nov. 30
32 Edgewood Gallery, Yale University School of Art, 1156 Chapel St.; (203) 432-2600

“Israel: Gated Community” through
Nov. 11 Allan and Leah Rabinowitz Gallery, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall St.; (203) 432-1134

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