It's a Thin Line: the Eruv and the Jewish Community of New York and Beyond

By: Michal Kaplan-Nadel  |  December 31, 2012

The power of the thin piece of string that we call an eruv is explored in the new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum called “It’s a Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond”. The exhibit explores the halachic, historical, and practical elements of building and living with an eruv.

An eruv can make a huge difference to a Jewish neighborhood. It allows parents to push their young children to synagogue, carry essentials like keys, or bring a gift to a friend’s home for a meal. All of these create an important sense of community that is fundamental to Judaism. However, there is also much controversy surrounding the eruv-can you build one? Where can it extend to? How will the non-Jewish neighbors react? These are just a few of the questions that are explored in this exhibit.

The exhibit mainly focuses on the progression of the eruv in Stern’s very own neighborhood, New York City, and how it has evolved over the years. Throughout the exhibit there are a few standout features. In the middle of the main room is an installation which is a representation of the eruv in Manhattan in both time and space. The strings are hanging in an outline of the island of Manhattan, and they vary in length, representing how long that part of the eruv has been in existence. When the light hits some of these strings they appear blue, which represents where the eruv is still active today.

Another artistic piece that stands out is a group of hanging paintings that can be found inside shuls on the Lower East Side. Since the Lower East Side does not have an eruv, there are some women with young children and elderly people who will never see these designs. The piece caught my eye because it showcases how an eruv has the ability to ostracize some members of the community, forcing them to remain home on Shabbat, the day that we associate with getting together with friends and family.

The exhibit successfully blends factual, artistic, and even humorous elements. Playing on a screen is a video clip from “The Daily Show”; a comic take on the controversy over the building of an eruv in Westhampton Beach. There are also personal elements thrown into the mix, with quotes on the wall of people in lots of Jewish communities sharing their thoughts about living with or without an eruv.

All in all, this exhibit provides a broad and interesting take on what would otherwise be just another area of intricate halkha and classic Jewish debate. It shows how an eruv is much more than that and has the power to divide or bring together a community.