Stretching string, creating community: the suburban eruv

As the 2012 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference dates near, emails from the session chairs are getting more frequent. I will be giving this paper June 9 in a session titled, “Re-Thinking Tradition and the Vernacular Landscape.” In the meantime, here is my abstract.

In the late 1890s Orthodox Jews in St. Louis, Missouri, constructed the first documented eruv in the United States. An eruv is an enclosure created using existing buildings and engineering structures such as utility poles and lines that allows observant Jews to carry things during the weekly Sabbath. Jewish religious law rigidly divides public and domestic spheres and prohibits work and carrying outside of the home during the Sabbath. To extend the domestic sphere into otherwise public spaces like sidewalks and yards, Orthodox Jews devised the eruv to expand territories restricted by rigid religious laws.

The first eruvs constructed in the United States were located in densely populated urban areas with large concentrations of Jews, mainly European immigrants who had brought with them eruv building traditions and generations city living experience. As American cities expanded with suburbanization and Jews moved to sprawling subdivisions after World War II, new settlement patterns emerged with large concentrations of Jews living within walking distance to synagogues. Despite the walkability afforded by proximity, however, many Orthodox women with young children could not leave the home during the Sabbath and social events like community meals were difficult, if not impossible, to organize and attend.

This paper examines eruvs as postwar suburban cultural landscapes. Research in suburban Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, among the people who build, maintain, and inspect the eruvs will be used to show how existing suburban landscapes with strip malls, freeways, and subdivisions are remade to conform to the complex rules governing eruvs. Interviews were conducted with the rabbis and congregation members responsible for the eruvs. Realtors who sell homes in eruv communities and the families who live there also were interviewed. This paper uses documentary research and the interviews to show how eruvs create, extend, and maintain community among Orthodox Jews.

Eruv checkers in the Washington suburbs and in Atlanta were accompanied as they performed weekly inspections to ensure that the eruvs were Kosher for the Sabbath. An eruv is a binary artifact: it is valid, i.e., Kosher, or it is not. For the eruv to exist, its boundaries — which consist of utility lines, highway sound walls, fences, and simple string — must be unbroken. Videos document how the checkers inspect and make repairs to the structures.

6 thoughts on “Stretching string, creating community: the suburban eruv

  1. This is an interesting topic. Can I get a copy of the full paper? March 31 will mark the 1000th Shabbat weekend that we have had our Eruv in the Boston area. It has grown several times over the years since I put it up and now has a perimeter of over 20 miles.

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