Monday, March 08, 2010

Old rituals - modern world

I think I'm fascinated by ways how people deal with millennia old rituals in the modern world. It appears that the recent snowstorms on the US east coast disrupted one such religious practice: Eruv. I must confess that this is the first time I read about it. Here is how it is related to the snow storms:

The storms have knocked down portions of the ritual boundary known as an eruv in Jewish communities in Silver Spring, Md., Center City Philadelphia, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Monsey in suburban New York, and Teaneck and Passaic in New Jersey.

Almost literally invisible even to observant Jews, the wire or string of an eruv, connected from pole to pole, allows the outdoors to be considered an extension of the home. Which means, under Judaic law, that one can carry things on the Sabbath, an act that is otherwise forbidden outside the house.

Prayer shawls, prayer books, bottles of wine, platters of food and, perhaps most important, strollers with children in them — Orthodox Jews can haul or tote such items within the eruv. When a section of an eruv is knocked down by, let’s say, a big snowstorm, then the alerts go out by Internet and robocall, and human behavior changes dramatically.

It is the last part that I love - the news is being delivered through some ultra-modern means. I'm assuming that they are using Twitter by now. But this is not the only place where ancient and the modern meets:

The damage to eruvim this winter evokes another kind of convergence, as well. It draws attention to the concept of the eruv itself, a combination of religious obligation, historical phenomenon and what academics call a social construction. In more than one way, an eruv is a through line.
“This symbolic boundary around the neighborhood requires interaction with the broader community, whether it’s asking permission, renting space, putting up strings and poles in front of someone’s apartment.”

An entire tractate, or volume, of the Talmud deals with the eruv. As a practical matter, though, Jews in antiquity lived within walled cities whose protective barriers doubled for religious purposes. The ghettos of Europe, which penned Jews inside, also served as eruvim.

But with their emancipation in various European countries, as Rabbi Mintz noted in a recent interview, Jews began to create eruvim, first using natural boundaries like rivers and later technological markers like telegraph poles. One of the first eruvim in North America, formed on the East Side of Manhattan in 1905, used both the East River and the Third Avenue elevated train.

Still, the entire continent had only three eruvim until 1970. To Rabbi Mintz, that paucity betrayed a Jewish reluctance to bring an abstruse matter of ritual observance into the realm of public policy — in the form of municipal zoning or planning boards, or city councils. Meanwhile, he said, an increasing number of Orthodox Jews were simply carrying on the Sabbath, eruv or not.

But now there 150 in North America. However, there is debate brewing within the Orthodox community:

With the boom has come some opposition — not, as Jews once feared, from intolerant gentiles, but from fellow Jews. Some Orthodox leaders maintain that urban eruvim are too large and populous to be legitimate. Less observant Jews in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have fought their installation, under the erroneous assumption that an eruv would coerce them in some way.

Read the full article here. I was thinking if there is an equivalent challenge for the Muslim community in the US. I couldn't think of one - except perhaps the insistence by some for goat/sheep sacrifice in their backyard for Eid-al-Adha. But a vast majority has been able to find an alternative in-line with the requirements of the society at large. Nevertheless, here is a link to a New York Times story from last September about a Pakistani drummer (not the rocker kind) in Brooklyn, who would bang his drum to wake people up before dawn during the month of Ramadan. This is more in the category of culture rather than religion. Still it is amusing. Perhaps, not surprisingly there have been more than a few complaints:

But New York City, renowned for welcoming all manner of cultural traditions, has limits to its hospitality. And so Mr. Boota, a Pakistani immigrant, has spent the past several years learning uncomfortable lessons about noise-complaint hot lines, American profanity and the particular crankiness of non-Muslims rousted from sleep at 3:30 a.m.

“Everywhere they complain,” he said. “People go, like, ‘What the hell? What you doing, man?’ They never know it’s Ramadan.”

Mr. Boota, 53, who immigrated in 1992 and earns his living as a limousine driver, began waking Brooklynites in 2002. At first he moved freely around the borough, picking a neighborhood to work each Ramadan morning.

Not everyone was thrilled, he said. People would throw open their windows and yell at him, or call the police, who, he said, advised him kindly to move along.

As the years went by, he and his barrel drum were effectively banned from one neighborhood after another. He now restricts himself to a short stretch of Coney Island Avenue where many Pakistanis live.

Fearing that even that limited turf may be threatened real estate for him, he has modified his approach even further — playing at well below his customary volume, for only about 15 to 20 seconds in each location, and only once every three or four days.

Read the drummer article here.


Quellspring said...

A novelist's interpretation of eruv-wrangling in a modern (but fictitious) Alaskan community turns up in Michael Chabon's 2007 work, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The Coen brothers are purportedly working on a film based on the novel, so we may soon get to see an artistic consideration of how a neo-traditional community negotiates its boundaries.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks for the tip. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is on my reading list (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books...). And yes, I have to read it before Coen brothers take a swipe at it - which will be very interesting.

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