Joanne Palmer

More about the eruv

The eruv fight in Mahwah is becoming uglier and uglier, and we watch it with dismay.

To some extent, it is a microcosm of the anger and fear and hatred and bigotry that is bubbling all around us. If even football players can be under attack (and to be honest, I’ve never understood the allure of the oversize over-padded waddling eye-blacked behemoths, running into each other and grunting, but I know I’m in a minority on that one), then why not eruv supporters?

But the situation is complicated, and we watch helplessly as it is turned into a black-and-white, good-versus-bad, cartoon version of real life. (And of course which side is good and which is bad, which is all virtue and which is the cartoon demon, entirely depends on where you stand.)

First, it is hard to explain what an eruv is. A few weeks ago, I wrote that an eruv is a legal fiction, and that I knew that no one would be happy with that wording, but it’s the most accurate way to explain this odd phenomenon, the stripes marking poles and strings connecting them that demarcate private space for observant Jews and allows them to carry things and push strollers and wheelchairs on Shabbat.

Non-Jews and less observant Jews cannot help but be put off by the idea of an eruv because they assume — and logic and common sense are on their side as they make that assumption — that somehow their own private property is less theirs if it is surrounded by an eruv.

That of course is not the case.

Observant Jews bristle at the idea that an eruv is a legal fiction — they insist that it is symbolic, not fictitious, making a distinction so fine that it loses its meaning easily — because if it is, they say, it does not work.

As I expected, I got an angry letter telling me that I am breathtakingly ignorant because I used the term legal fiction. It is exactly that approach — the I’m-right-and-so-you’re-wrong-so-why-don’t-I-just-call-you-names approach — that leads to so much trouble.

It’s not an I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong issue.

Eruv supporters must understand that it is not inherently anti-Semitic not to want an eruv.

The eruv struggle is not happening in a vacuum. There is history just over the state border. The specter of the East Ramapo school district looms. It is a tragic story — the working class, striving, largely immigrant or minority parents who moved to Rockland County to give their children better lives, and found themselves in a school district stripped of most resources, apparently by a large chasidic community that at least seemed not to care about them. The story is murky, but the one thing that is clear is that it is not good.

No one wants her school district to turn into an East Ramapo.

It is also true that it is possible to fight against an eruv, bring in lots of outside lawyers, fight in court, lose, fight again, lose, fight again, lose, and eventually give up and get an eruv. And then watch as absolutely nothing happens. So there’s an eruv. So what?

That’s what happened in Tenafly more than 10 years ago. The town fought the eruv, anti-Semitism spewed, lots of money was spent, and it lost, and now it has an eruv. And Tenafly continues to have a wonderful school district; it also has many Jews, some Orthodox, some Conservative, some Reform; many non-Jews, representing a wide range of ethnicities, and very few problems.

That could happen in Mahwah too.

On the other hand, eruv opponents must understand that it doesn’t sound like they’re opposing just an eruv. More and more, as tempers stretch and patience and understanding run out and old elemental hatreds bubble up, it sounds like they’re opposing Jews.

It is starting to sound like pure anti-Semitism.

Social media just makes everything worse. It used to demand either middle-of-the-night stealth or pure brazen guts to call someone a name or leave a nasty or threatening note in someone’s mailbox. Now there’s another way. Go online, and let the venom spew.

This has to end.

This is a dream, of course, a mad wild dream, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the adversaries could talk to each other? Really talk? The eruv supporters could explain how the eruv would make their lives significantly easier, and also could talk about the community that an eruv fosters. That’s no small thing.

The opponents could talk about their real fears without couching them in anti-Semitism. Maybe their fears could be assuaged. Maybe they too would feel the powerful pull of community.

We hope that everyone involved will be able to pull back from the fight, disengage their emotions, engage their logical facilities, and then fall back on their basic goodness. Although it is not likely, how healthy it would be if everyone could apologize to each other, and then move forward together.

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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