About those walls

Something there is doesn’t love a wall?

Good fences make good neighbors?

It might be two Jews, three opinions, but here there’s just one poet, the extremely WASP Robert Frost, and two opinions. And that’s just from one poem, the extremely well known if often misunderstood “Mending Walls.”

And yes, all this is leading into a look at one particular eruv, the abstract wall that now is roiling many towns on both sides of the New Jersey/New York border.

Do people want to be fenced in? Fenced out? Unfenced? Free? Protected? Are boundaries safe? Are they threatening? Are they challenges to be surmounted? To be kicked in? To be built up?

As tempting as it might be to say that all opposition to the eruv is anti-Semitism, that would be inaccurate. Perhaps not always but often, very often, the situation is far more complicated than that.

To begin with, it is hard to describe an eruv properly to someone who does not know what it is, and generally the terms used to do so make people who need eruvs bristle.

An eruv is a legal fiction that encloses a domain that allows Jews to carry on Shabbat.

There’s something in that sentence to annoy everyone.

The term legal fiction allows non-Jews and many liberal Jews to understand that the boundary has no legal hold on them. It does not make their property any more communal or any less theirs. It does not change the legal status of anything under American law.

But observant Jews bridle at the term, because if the eruv were entirely a legal fiction it would be useless to them. The construct’s virtual doorways have to be real enough to wall off a domain.

And then there’s the word domain. In plain old English, it means “an area of territory owned or controlled by a ruler or government.” That’s enough to send off trumpets of alarm. What do you mean, a ruler or government owns or controls this land inside the eruv? That’s my backyard! It’s not the town’s! That is my pool and my barbecue grill and my sprinkler system.

And of course it is. The word domain brings us back into that system of abstract symbols that somehow must be real enough to function as an actual thing in Jewish law but be entirely unreal in American law.

Carry? What does that mean? As it turns out, depending on how it is defined, it means not only carry objects but also push them. So no strollers or baby carriages if there is no eruv; no diaper bags or tallis bags or even keys or books.

Next, there is the question of who an eruv encloses. It is necessary to allow communities of observant Jews, mostly but not entirely Orthodox, to flourish. (Yes, there are observant Jewish communities without eruvs, but that, as our cover story describes, is very hard on the young mothers who are left at home with their toddlers.)

The eruv can pit Jews again non-Jews, and it can evoke the kind of anti-Semitism that had laid dormant under rocks. It also can pit Jews against Jews. That’s particularly true in Rockland County, where the Jews who are trying to extend the eruv are Hasidim whose Rockland communities have not been textbook examples of comity or pluralism. Jews who worry that their own school systems will go the way of East Ramapo’s might not see the future clearly, but they are not basing their fears on nothing either.

So it is a very messy situation, likely to devolve into ugliness if everyone isn’t very careful.

We have no idea what will happen — although we do know that every time that an eruv goes to court, it wins — but we hope that instead of the brutal multi-sided fight that might follow, and that will help absolutely no one, decency will prevail. We do not pretend to know what decency would look like, but unfortunately we have a very good idea of what its absence will do to all of us.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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