A year ago, I was struggling through my first ever daf of Gemara. Back then, I had never heard of Wuhan or a pangolin or recalled hearing the term “coronavirus”; I was looking forward to a trip in February to Singapore to visit my brother, never imagined my kids in Zoom school from home, and I would have scoffed at the idea that a year later, I would be finishing my third tractate of Talmud as part of the latest Daf Yomi cycle.
Back in January, just when the strange new virus was appearing on my radar, I had no intention of undertaking Daf Yomi; it seemed too daunting, too time consuming, too much of a commitment. But when I attended Hadran’s Women Siyum Hashas in Jerusalem under the leadership of Rabbanit Michelle Farber, and I stood awash in emotion among a sea of women, some of whom were finishing the entire cycle themselves, I decided to push the boundaries of my fledgling Talmud learning.
My husband Duvy, who was just finishing the previous Daf Yomi cycle and ready to start the next, happened to be on his way to the States, so I pressed on alone, pouring over my Artscroll gemara and listening to Rabbanit Farber’s podcast with a combined sense of determination and weariness. I doubted I would make it until Duvy returned a week and a half later, but I figured each daf I did was one more than I had ever done before and one more than I could ever have imagined I would do. I would take it one day and one daf at a time.
When Duvy returned, we became Daf Yomi chavrutot (study partners), learning together at different times and places as life permitted — even at the Kotel plaza once — and my favorite sessions quickly became the ones where I read the daf to him while he cleans the kitchen.
I found that I loved learning Masechet Brachot, its rules peppered with interesting and strange asides — from dead girls speaking from beyond the grave to the slighted Yalta bashing wine barrels to protect the Torah’s honor. Just before corona put the kibosh on communal gatherings, I found myself presenting a dvar Torah as part of my shul’s siyum (concluding celebration) for Brachot.
Masechet Shabbat was longer, drier and less engaging, but it was a poignant moment when Duvy and I concluded the masechet on the morning of our oldest son’s wedding in August. I was grateful for the mental stimulation and consistency the learning had afforded me during Israel’s first lockdown and through the twists and turns of planning a wedding during a pandemic (and the siyum we made at socially-distant sheva brachot (post-wedding celebration) later that week felt like a fitting way to mark the milestone of us becoming “in-laws”).
And then we started Eruvin.
Eruvin at its core deals with Shabbat boundaries, often in the form of an eruv, that are at once physical and metaphysical and which demarcate spaces where it is permissible for Jews to travel, carry, and transfer objects on Shabbat.
An eruv is often a hallmark of a thriving observant community; it liberates young families and the disabled from their homes, facilitating things like pushing strollers, carrying diaper bags, and pot-luck meals. Those who have always lived with an eruv often take it for granted, something, to paraphrase Shakespeare, more noticed with a breach for the observant, when a sudden downed line foils plans for a joint meal or for a young mother to attend shul.
Like an eruv itself, learning Masechet Eruvin is often technical, detailed and complicated, but as Duvy and I covered concepts like “mavoi,” “lechi,” and “korah,” terms which can seem so esoteric and abstract, it conjured up the time in my life when I first heard eruv jargon and when an eruv had the most concrete impact on my life.
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Before our aliyah, we lived in La Jolla, California, a seaside enclave in San Diego which is often referred to as “the Jewel” because of its near-perfect climate and gorgeous vistas overlooking the Pacific. We pinched ourselves for being lucky enough to live there, yet over the years, as idyllic as it was, one key piece of communal infrastructure was still missing: an eruv.
Like the community’s other growing families, we were desperate for an eruv. Without one, each time we had a baby, I was tethered to home on Shabbat while Duvy attended shul, we could not easily go to friends’ houses for a meal, or on a Shabbat stroll with a stroller, and when Duvy did a weekend shift working at the hospital, I felt utterly isolated. (I feel now that this was boot camp for the COVID-19 era, as I learned how endless a stretch of time can feel when you are segregated from family and friends).
Duvy spearheaded our shul’s eruv committee and for years, he worked with engineers, other synagogues in the era, consultants, bureaucrats, politicians and rabbis to try and get the eruv built. It was during this time that I first heard the terms “lechi” and “carmelit” bandied about, as the eruv team tried to solve challenges and draw up plans. The part of the eruv that needed to actually be constructed was small and unobtrusive; existing topography, freeway walls and structures did most of the work, and we only needed a handful of additional poles and less than 5,000 linear feet of clear fishing wire to close the gaps. Once that was done, we would need formal permission from someone in charge of access to city streets to make the eruv “kosher.”
Before the eruv construction could be approved by the City of San Diego, the project had to be presented to local La Jolla community groups, which would then make recommendations to the full council. It was at this point that we learned that an eruv can be an unseen but real line delineating a community’s boundaries for tolerance and acceptance.
One afternoon, before the eruv was even ready to be presented to the community groups, Duvy received a call from a gentleman from the neighborhood, who said he was hearing rumors about the eruv from neighbors, but wanted to learn about it from the synagogue itself, and asked if Duvy would be speaking about the eruv at the community group meeting that night, since the eruv was on the agenda. In fact, the shul had not been given notice that the eruv was up for discussion, and had the man not happened to call, the eruv would not have had any representation.
After scrambling to attend the community meeting that night, Duvy and I sat through the induction of new committee members and some project presentations, and then the eruv finally came up on the agenda. The air in the room suddenly shifted, the hostility palpable. Duvy requested to speak, but was cut off at every turn as the head of the committee was clearly against the project. Another committee member, a highly educated young professional, stated the committee’s concern that the eruv would attract a “certain type of person” to the community and he wouldn’t like that at all. Most of the other members bobbed their heads, their “knowing nods” damning the project before it could even be explained.
We left dejected and dismayed. We knew La Jolla had a history tainted by anti-Semitism and naively thought those days were long gone, but in the room that night, we felt it chill our bones.
After the meeting, one of the newly initiated committee members emailed Duvy to introduce himself and explained that he was Jewish though not very affiliated. The note proclaimed: “Anti-Semitism is alive and well in La Jolla.” He, too, felt the negative energy in the room, and was also appalled that La Jolla hadn’t fully shed its past. Though he tried to help on his end, the project was ultimately denied approval by that committee.
That meeting was only the beginning of a series of uncomfortable community interactions, an odd mix of ignorance and intolerance, like the woman at one meeting who said she didn’t want to ruin her karma by being in our “zone,” the man who slapped Duvy on the back and told him to forget the eruv and “get progressive, son,” and another man who said the eruv should be built underground. When we finally went to the full City Council, a number of community members misrepresented that the eruv would block their views and one even purported that the eruv would lead to a “holocaust for the birds.”
A non-observant Jewish resident of the neighborhood wrote to the shul to share that when she first learned of the eruv project, she was against it, but then she heard her neighbors discussing it and realized their real motive was anti-Semitism. She included a copy of a letter circulating around the neighborhood which warned people against the eruv, claiming it would bring in people who would ruin the public schools because they wouldn’t send their kids there so the schools would be forced to bus in less desirable elements and that soon enough the kosher interlopers would ensure that the local Ralphs supermarket would no longer serve pork — a bacon libel for the modern era.
Notwithstanding the eruv team’s best efforts, it took over a decade to build the eruv. Thankfully, the more diverse, broader City Council approved the eruv construction, and less than a month before our fifth and youngest child was born, right before Yom Kippur, Duvy and I were emotional as we stood with a police captain, one of the City of San Diego officials with the requisite control of city streets, as she gave her imprimatur which finally made the eruv valid. Jewish herself, she was excited to help make this dream come true, and she went to become San Diego’s first female chief of police, an old boundary broken.
Despite the happy ending in getting the La Jolla eruv built, the eruv battle left scars, invisible yet strong, a translucent fishing wire that dug into my psyche and cut off a piece of my comfort in my American life, and served as a catalyst for our aliyah almost six years later.
Now, six years after that, I have become one of those people who takes the eruv for granted. I have rarely given thought to our current eruv, but in the spring, when Israel’s first lockdown had us traversing the wadi within the hundred meters behind our house over and over, I would spot the eruv wire there and smile, and now in these months, as Duvy and I have slogged through Eruvin together, I asked him questions about his practical experience with some of the concepts we have learned.
This year has pushed boundaries for all of us in ways we couldn’t have imagined. On the dark side, we have all faced levels of fear and isolation. The anti-Semitism I felt pulsing beneath the surface in America has continued to come out of the shadows from the right and the left and walls have grown tall between neighbors and friends who share different beliefs and who can no longer seem to join together.
But I have also become part of a quiet and growing revolution in women’s Talmud learning, and as I carve out space and time to learn day in and day out, even during Zoom school days when everyone seems to be around and hungry all the time, I am glad I am pushing my own boundaries, even and especially when the learning is difficult.
Hadran Alach, Masechet Eruvin. We will return to you, Eruvin.
And here’s to Masechet Pesachim, (and to more daf learning while Duvy cleans the kitchen).