Snapshots of life inside Montgomery County’s eruvim

It’s been a fact of life in Washington for so long that people don’t notice — Rabbi Barry Freundel, Kesher Israel Synagogue, Washington, D.C.

Life inside an eruv, for Jews and non-Jews, is like life anywhere else. The boundary created by the eruv and the domain inside are meant to be unobtrusive and their builders strive for invisibility. I live inside an eruv and until I began than research, I was unaware of its existence or its limits. The same is true for many of my neighbors and friends and colleagues who live elsewhere in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Montgomery County, Maryland, eruvim. October 2010.

Since October I have done about a dozen interviews and visited each of Montgomery County’s seven eruvim. Earlier blog posts document some of these efforts. I have spoken with mothers who are among the most affected by an eruv and I spoke with a realtor who has sold properties inside the eruv for decades. There are many more conversations I need to have and I hope that this series continues to bring folks to me while at the same time I seek out new perspectives on Montgomery County’s eruvim.

Outside a Montgomery County synagogue. Photograph by David Rotenstein, October 2010.

I began this series intent on using some of my cultural documentation skills to look at something about which I knew very little but which tugged on my interest in vernacular cultural landscapes. Now, two months later I have a better yet still incomplete understanding of Montgomery County’s eruvim as complex social institutions. This post explores some of the aspects of life inside the eruv boundaries.

Tom King is an archaeologist and expert on traditional cultural properties — places tied to a “community’s historically rooted beliefs, customs, and practices” — and he lives a short distance away from me, inside the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring. After reading the first posts in this series, he emailed, “This is perfectly fascinating. This morning I didn’t know what an eruv was, and now I find that I live in one!” In a subsequent note King wrote, “Fascinating, David, and for those of us who sometimes have to help people understand the more ephemeral indicators of Native American sacred space, a very nice analogy.”

An eruv captures many demographic layers within its boundaries. There are young and old people and Jews and non-Jews who live, work, learn, and play within any particular eruv. The Kesher Israel congregation’s eruv covers much of the nation’s capital and includes the White House, Capitol, and U.S. Supreme Court buildings. Montgomery County’s eruvim have within their boundaries courthouses, churches, schools, highways, malls, farms, and subdivisions.

To all but the Orthodox (and some Conservative) Jews who require eruvim to adapt archaic religious laws to the realities of 21st century urban and suburban life, the eruvim are physically and psychically invisible. Observant Jews who live inside eruvim and who abide by the laws restricting behavior on the Sabbath are able to carry things like handkerchiefs and keys as they walk their neighborhood streets during the 25-hour Sabbath; they can use mobility aids like wheelchairs and canes; they can carry food from one house to another; and, perhaps most importantly, parents may use strollers and other devices to transport young children.

Walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. Photograph by David Rotenstein, October 2010.

Architectural historians and others who have written on eruvim in Europe, the United States, and Canada, all note the significant impact an eruv can have on the social lives of women. Women who historically found themselves home-bound and excluded from social and religious events because they traditionally served as caregivers have been afforded new freedoms because of eruvim.

I interviewed one Orthodox woman who lives in Silver Spring who is single and childless. “I am single, I have no children so for me it’s a whole different ball game than it would be for a family with lots of kids,” she explained. After we discussed how the eruv impacts her life, she admitted:

I’m not desperately dependent on having it. It’s a nuisance if I don’t, unless of course I have company that really are dependent on it ….

Saying all of this that I’m not directly affected most of the time, does not negate that I’m very aware of folks who need mobility aids or who are dealing with stroller issues or whatever else, have it a lot worse.

Another Silver Spring woman explained,

Well, there was a whole lot more social gatherings happening in the afternoon because — our shabbos afternoons — because people could get there with their kids or whatever. I mean it was — It’s really I think more the greatest impact to people who have little kids. But also people who like to interact with people who have little kids.

Washington rabbi Barry Freundel underscored what Montgomery County residents were telling me about who was most affected by having an eruv:

There are people with young children there are also singles who are able to have like potluck dinners where everybody can bring something. There are those that are handicapped who have problems walking around. Those are probably the biggest demographics.

Although eruvim are built by Jews as devices to supplement religious life and ritual, eruvim are not themselves considered sacred. They may be sanctified by rabbis and considered “kosher” but they are not ritual objects. They are secular artifacts that are no different from the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure to which they are often collocated.

“The eruv is a boundary marker,” said Rabbi Freundel in a November interview. “It creates a domain in which you can carry, it’s not a ritual. That’s the important and critical element in this that sometimes gets misconstrued. It’s not a religious thing; it’s secular.”

Architectural historian Jennifer Cousineau has written extensively on the material culture of eruvim. Cousineau has looked at the intersection of sacred and the secular behaviors by Jews who live inside eruvim. Her work on the London eruv examines the many meanings embedded in the landscapes within eruvim. According to Cousineau, the most significant benefit afforded by eruvim is being able to carry things.

Along with the benefits introduced by an eruv, however, came the opportunity for jokes targeting the Jews who use the eruv as a personal convenience tool to circumvent Sabbath prohibitions against work, play, and carrying. Folklorist Alan Dundes wrote about these circumventions in his book, The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subertfuges.

To take advantage of the conveniences afforded by the eruv, the observant must buy into the belief that the eruv is religiously valid. Once that is accepted, subscribers must then adhere to a dizzying array of rules governing what can and cannot be done, when and where, inside and outside the eruv‘s boundaries.

For example, it is up to each person living inside the eruv to be responsible for determining whether the eruv is intact or “up” each week. As I wrote in earlier posts, eruvim are checked each week by volunteers or paid inspectors who then report on the conditions to a synagogue’s eruv committee or rabbi. There are rules about “legitimate” sources of information about the eruv‘s status and each community develops networks to ensure that the information is properly disseminated.

Earlier I wrote about the devices like flags and lights some synagogues use to notify their congregations if the eruv is up each week. Before the advent of the Internet, such notice was orally transmitted throughout the community or it was relayed in tape-recorded messages people could hear if they called the synagogue.


Woodside eruv status message. October 29, 2010.


Aspen Hill eruv status message. October 29, 2010.

Many synagogues continue to use recorded messages. Others allow congregants to sign up for weekly email notifications and many synagogues post their eruv‘s status on Websites.

Silver Spring Eruv Association weekly email notification.

Eruv status screen capture.

One Silver Spring resident described how her synagogue notified congregants of eruv problems prior to the inception of an email list:

It was a choice of two methods. You could either call somebody, you know, there was a — they put a message on a dedicated extension at the shul and you could call that number and hear a message that it was up or it was down, pre-email. Or they would make an announcement Friday night at service and say it’s up or it’s down.

You didn’t take your key with you for Friday night because you didn’t know if you’d be able to bring it home again.

The ways in which the eruvim impact women more than men were underscored in what she said next. “But generally men go on Friday nights and the women stay home and we let them in,” she said with a laugh.

The creative ways to deal with the Sabbath rules include attaching keys to clothing and by foregoing certain activities. In the interviews I have done on the Montgomery County eruvim, house keys play a prominent role in the narratives. One woman told me that she has a realtor’s lockbox permanently attached to her door while another person explained how her house has a door with a combination lock.

Because eruvim create closed domains, i.e., one eruv cannot overlap with another, moving from one neighborhood to another can be tricky. One person I interviewed explained the difficulties of visiting friends and family south of the Beltway. “You know, you can’t go between one eruv and another so going from here down to say Woodside, where they also have an eruv, is a little bit challenging,” she said. “I know how to do it, but you know it’s like not having an eruv at all. You can’t have a handkerchief in your pocket. You can’t carry your key. You know, you have to go as if there were no eruv at all, with nothing other than what you’re wearing.”

The final post in this series will be a brief look at how technology has influenced the cultural landscapes created by the eruvim. Over the next several months I will be continuing the field research and I expect to submit my first article on Montgomery County’s eruvim in early 2011.

Courtyards of Convenience posts:

  1. Mapping Montgomery County’s Eruvim
  2. Making the symbolic real: Building and maintaining the eruvim
  3. Life inside the Eruvim (this post)
  4. Eruvim in the Information Age

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein

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