By Deborah Harley
New York is a surprisingly spiritual city. Throughout its history, many residents have sought the transcendent over the corporeal. For this reason, New York contains a variety of sacred spaces that have been set aside for a higher purpose. One example is a Jewish eruv.
Jewish laws prohibit the observant from transferring objects between a private space (the home) and a public space on the Sabbath. Such laws not only prevent congregants from carrying their sacred texts to worship but also mean the elderly should not use canes, parents should not push their children in strollers, and nobody should carry house keys or money.
The concept of an eruv originated in Europe during the late medieval period. Communities there consisted of winding streets with courtyards between buildings, which made the courtyards de facto areas of the home. The eruv allowed for such areas to be included within the home’s boundaries, creating a single domestic environment. Residents could carry objects outside the walls of the home as if they were still inside.
The process of determining the boundaries of an eruv is regulated by Jewish law and is often controversial. To sustain the fiction of a personal domain, the boundaries must be sufficiently nonporous to limit extraneous public access. A boundary can be natural like a hillside or a river, man-made like a wall or an elevated railway, or symbolic like a wire. The community must be able to rent the area within the boundaries for a nominal fee from a legal source that theoretically would have access to the homes, such as a municipal officer.
Once completed, an eruv is strictly maintained by the Jewish community. This is particularly challenging when wires form boundary lines, as they often do in New York. Every Thursday morning, volunteers inspect the thin wires strung high above, attached to utility poles or buildings. Many activities could break the wires, such as utility work or storms. If the volunteer inspectors find any disruption in the boundaries, crews immediately fix the problem so that observant Jews can carry items outside their homes within the eruv on the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday). To be on the safe side, observant Jews should assume that the eruv is not in affect if the condition is unknown. Today, organizations post the status of eruvin (that’s the plural form) online to ease worries.
Inspecting and repairing part of an eruv boundary
New York City has no fewer than eighteen eruvin located throughout the five boroughs. The first eruv was completed in 1907 for the benefit of Polish Jews living on the Lower East Side but ran along the east side of Manhattan from the southern tip of the island all the way to Harlem. The Third Avenue elevated train formed one side of the eruv, and the rivers formed the other sides. After the el train was taken down in the 1950s, the eruv boundaries were no longer viable. Today, several other eruvin have taken its place in Manhattan.
As you make your way through New York, be mindful of the sacred spaces that make up the city. Spiritual New York is all around—even above you.
The Sacred Park
One sacred space that every New Yorker is familiar with is Central Park. A product of the Romantic minds of designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was conceived as a place where besieged New Yorkers could retreat and refresh themselves. The Reverend Henry W. Bellows observed in 1861 that a reverence would come over visitors as they entered the park. He remarked that even the most strapping and bellicose fellows would become hushed, as if entering a church. In fact, the designers’ vision for the park was as a sanctuary in the midst of—yet apart from—the hurrying, crowded city. It was meant to be a place where New York’s huddled masses could commune with nature and meditate on its spiritual force.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
Some magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago still stand on the Upper East Side. These freestanding mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings—mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them—New York's own rich and famous.
Laurie leads the mansions tour on Saturday, March 3, at 1 PM. Please email her (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Public Art of Lower Manhattan
You don’t need to go to a museum to see great art. This interactive tour includes some of the most interesting and varied art in New York City. The artworks are as old as the doors of Trinity Church and as new as the SeaGlass Carousel.
Alan gives this tour on Saturday, March 10, at 11 AM. Email him (email@example.com) to make a reservation and to learn the meeting location.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan illustrates American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William “Boss” Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Join Alan on Saturday, March 17, at 2 PM to take this walk through history. Please email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a place and to learn the meeting location.
Central Park: Highlights of the Southern Half
In the popular southern half of Central Park, you’ll recognize some of the most filmed and photographed sights in New York, including Strawberry Fields, the Sheep Meadow, and Bethesda Terrace. The park beckons in all kinds of weather. On this tour, we'll look for signs of spring and observe design elements that are hard to detect through the foliage in later months.
Take a walk through the southern half of Central Park on Sunday, March 25, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.