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  • Rabbinic Urbanism in London:Rituals and the Material Culture of the Sabbath
  • Jennifer Cousineau (bio)

In February 2003, six and a half square miles of the Borough of Barnet was leased to a representative of London's Jewish community for a nominal sum of approximately one British pound.1 This unusual real estate transaction activated a type of space—an eruv—that would have immediate practical ramifications for part of the Jewish community, and would stand over time as a powerful spatial expression of communal values and identity. This article offers an ethnographic and material culture analysis of a spatial phenomenon that I call "rabbinic urbanism," using the planning and construction of the London eruv as an example. Rabbinic urbanism refers to the processes by which rabbinic actors and thinkers theorize and construct urban space. For my purposes, the category of rabbinic actors encompasses both ordained rabbis—the formally recognized interpreters of halakhah—and ordinary Jews who understand their behavior to be circumscribed by it.

Although the particular rabbinic actors I shall discuss below see themselves as the inheritors of an unbroken tradition of interpretation and practice dating back to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I use the concept of rabbinic urbanism in a historically specific and limited manner. The idea, and possibly the practice, of the eruv dates back to the late second century, as the Mishnah attests, but each group [End Page 36] of rabbinic actors has produced its own interpretation of the theory and material production of the eruv-object, in response to a specific set of material and social conditions. My investigation focuses on a late-twentieth- century form of the eruv, through which I hope to contribute to an enlarged understanding of the ways in which Jews locate themselves in urban space. The type of rabbinic urbanism I observed in London and will elaborate below was characterized by ritualized uses and practices of space, legal designations, and sanctification of the mundane through a host of communal gestures and debates.2

Although Jews have been a distinctly if not exclusively urban group since at least the first century, little attention has been paid to the relationship between the practice of Judaism and its paradigmatic site— the city.3 Indeed, as Arnold Eisen has noted, little attention has been paid to Judaism as a modern ritual and spatial practice at all, let alone in relation to its larger urban context.4 Modern historians of Judaism have generally treated the city as incidental or as a kind of backdrop to events in Jewish history. In fact, however, the urban context for the actions of Jews has played a central role in the making of those historical events and processes. The urban site and scale of the London eruv shaped almost every aspect of its planning, production, and usage, and neither this eruv nor any other can be understood without an appreciation of the urban processes that underpinned them.5

The critical framework for this investigation grows out of an ethnographic approach to space pioneered by the historian Rhys Isaac as well as Dell Upton's scholarship on the city as material culture.6 Isaac's method calls for close observation of the details of "people doing things," which he calls "action statements," and on attention to the settings in which human action unfolds. The context for any human activity, he argues, contributes to the shaping of that activity. I would add that the creation of a physical context for action (such as the London eruv) must be included in the larger category of "people doing things." For Isaac and for me, the urban landscape constitutes an elaborately coded network of nonverbal statements that resonate deeply for those who act in and on them.7

Part of the work of this article is to decode the nonverbal statements that the London eruv made, even before it reached its complete physical form in 2003. The specter of its presence loomed large in the spatial imaginations of Londoners from the time that the first plans for an eruv emerged. Upton's approach to the city calls attention to what he terms the "city-artifact," or the city as...


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