Look closely. See the long, black rectangle hidden in the mural below, beneath the red arms? That’s a door to a invisible city.
An invisible city, or perhaps more accurately, an enclosed spiritual zone, known as an eruv. I’ve been traveling through the West Rogers Park eruv for years, unaware of its existence, until a few weeks ago when I learned about it from a fascinating book—Out of the Loop: Vernacular Architecture Forum Chicago.
So here’s the deal: Jewish law as interpreted by the Torah and Talmud prohibits people from carrying things outside of a private space during Shabbat (from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) and on the holiday Yom Kippur (which begins tonight). As you can imagine, this prohibition against carrying can be mighty impractical—like say, you can’t carry your house keys or your glasses or other slightly important things such as…..hmmmm……your baby. That’s where the eruv (pronounced ay-roov) comes in. The eruv encloses an area (in this instance, an entire neighborhood) and though strict adherence to law and vigilant maintenance, the enclosure transforms the public space into a private regulated space, so that Jewish residents can “legally” carry some necessary items during Shabbat.
My neighborhood, Rogers Park and the adjacent neighborhood called West Ridge (often collectively known as West Rogers Park), are largely enclosed inside of an eruv. Below is a map showing the boundaries of the eruv, which I’m using by permission from the West Rogers Park Community website.
Like I said, I only just recently learned about the eruv, so I called an expert for more information. Rabbi Doug, the gregarious Rogers Park rabbi, major Beatles fan and producer of the cable access show Taped with Rabbi Doug, kindly took time from his busy schedule to explain a few things about the eruv to me. Rabbi Doug maintains chicagoeruv.tripod.com, a website used by the West Rogers Park community to stay updated on the status of the eruv. I recommend reading his website for a more authoritative explanation of the rules related to the eruv and its upkeep.
On September 14 – 15, during the two day observance of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, HOB and I walked the perimeter of the eruv. We began at the Northwest corner of the eruv, bordered on the West by the Chicago River, and on the North by the Skokie Swift train tracks and moved East.
The West Rogers Park eruv utilizes existing structures and geographical elements for sections of the eruv confines. The Chicago River Canal makes up the entire Western boundary.
We checked out the huge Kosher Jewel Osco supermarket on Howard Street, near the North border of the eruv. There’s even a kosher Chinese take-out inside. (If anyone’s eaten here, let me know if it’s good).
Sure, I packed a picnic, but we saved room for chocolate dipped biscotti from JR Dessert Bakery at Howard and California—tasty and cheap!
At the Northern boundary Yellow Line train tracks, Dodge and Mulford. The long silver rectangle is the eruv portal.
Intersection of Ashbury and Brummel. Much of the eruv border is demarcated by a wire running through loops on the tops of poles.
Next we walked straight down the Eastern perimeter, which is bounded by the Metra train tracks. Wherever there’s an opening under the tracks to allow for traffic, an eruv portal is present on both sides of the underpass. This is the corner of Estes and Ravenswood—the eruv portal is the post in front of the lips of the guy in the mural.
Also at Estes and Ravenswood, a perfect demonstration of why I love living in Rogers Park—we have so many murals! The community actually votes to fund their creation. Isn’t it charming how the artist made the eruv portal into a little newspaper box?
Greenleaf and Ravenswood: this eruv portal is right under the entry to the Rogers Park metra station.
Also at Greenleaf and Ravenswood–the eruv marker is painted yellow, under the elbow of the lady in blue jeans.
Lunt and Ravenswood.
You (and your eruv) are beautiful at Morse and Ravenswood.
Morse and Ravenswood: an especially well camouflaged eruv portal.
Farwell and Ravenswood–I wonder if the artist who painted over the eruv marker under the ballet dancer’s legs realized what it was for?
Farwell and Ravenswood.
Pratt and Ravenswood.
Pratt and Ravenswood.
Devon and Ravenswood.
Ridge and Ravenswood—this is the Southeastern border of the eruv with an intriguing double portal. Is it a gate?
Heading West from Ravenswood on Peterson, the eruv is bounded by the wall of Rosehill Cemetary. Where the cemetery wall leaves off, at Peterson and Western, the eruv is marked with a wire running along the perimeter.
Clearly the eruv utilizes city infrastructure (like you can see here, on the tops of light posts) and I was curious about how that worked out politically. Rabbi Doug told me that the eruv went up about 1993 with the cooperation of then Alderman Bernard Stone. As the eruv is privately funded, the local government does not object to its existence. The far Northern border of the eruv is actually in Evanston, not Chicago, the communication can be trickier, but apparently the city of Evanston is also cooperative–when they need to remove parts of the eruv to make way for construction, they always make sure it’s back in place by Friday night.
The eruv barrier is the wire running on the top. Rabbi Doug mentioned that a time when a taxi smashed into one of the poles but the eruv remained intact since the wire didn’t fall.
Wolfies: just inside the eruv on Peterson.
Intersection of Peterson, Lincoln and Virginia, where the eruv boundary turns the corner to head North.
The eruv perimeter marked by a wire running over Devon and Kedzie.
And, last stop of our West Rogers Park eruv walk, Howard and McCormick.
Heading home, sweaty, hungry and smeared with sunblock, our appearance was in sharp contrast to the well-dressed families pouring out of the synagogues all in their high holiday best. But Rogers Park is not exclusively Jewish— in fact it’s a multi-cultural wonderland; Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, non-believers and everyone else under the sun co-exist here. Most residents most likely have no idea they live inside of an eruv, yet for some community members its a important part of their life (the observant Jews must check the status of the eruv via a hotline prior to Shabbat). The eruv is a highly unusual sort of spiritual zone; conceptual, shared with people who are not members of the faith, symbolic, but at the same time literal and practical. As a connoisseur of spiritual spaces, I’m intrigued by this intersection of religious law and urban planning. When I think of religious spaces, I imagine brick buildings and stained glass, the smell of incense and the sound voices raised in songs of praise. How compelling it is to live in a place where religion can be all these things, but also a wire crossing an intersection, the wall of a graveyard, and hidden portals under the train tracks.
L’Shana Tovah–Happy New Year 5776–and G’mar Hatimah Tovah. Wishing all the observant a thoughtful Yom Kippur.
How we got to West Rogers Park eruv: on foot
Where we slept: at home. Price: mortgage, assessments and utilities. Recommended: highly.