Ark in Copenhagen Synagogue | Image via Flickr user Senia L

The construction of space constitutes one of the primary ways through which religions create templates for behavior. As they construct their physical spaces, religions create models of the ideal, places within which adherents can visualize and enact religious principles in a concrete way. Anthropologists have often discussed this process in terms of sacred space—edifices such as temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques can be seen as spatial embodiments of religious ideas, allowing worshipers to physically act out what are ordinarily abstract notions. Communal religions often extend this to the space of daily living, constructing living spaces, workplaces, and communal spaces that mimic those of the ideal world, allowing members to approximate in this dimension the virtues that will be fully realized in the world to come. Anthropologists have written extensively about this process, examining the construction of space in religious organizations ranging from churches to monasteries to ethnoreligious enclaves.

Anthropologists have said much less about the construction of space beyond these enclaves—about the ways that religious organizations construct and imagine the public spaces within which their private worlds exist. If private spaces represent the world to come, public spaces reflect the world as it is, the imperfect but uncompromisingly real setting within which the religious ideals have to be lived out. The ability of religions to shape their public spaces is limited, of course, since they share them with other actors, each with their own ideals and interests. That very limitation, however, makes public spaces a particularly apt setting in which to express the strategies religions use and the tensions they encounter as they engage with the larger world.

One of the few groups for which we do have research on this subject is the Jewish diaspora. In large part, this reflects the difficulty of defining group space for Jews, and the centrality of that task in the definition and negotiation of Jewish community. In the long millennia of diaspora, it has been rare for Jews to have spaces of their own; the vast majority of Jews have lived as minorities on alien soil, interspersed among majority populations that hold the primary claim to public lands and spaces. This has been particularly true for the past half-century, following the destruction of the ghetto and shtetl Jewries of Europe, and the gradual dissolution of urban Jewish enclaves in the Western democracies. Most contemporary Jews live lives inextricably entwined with those of gentilestheir workplaces, their neighborhoods, and often their marital beds are shared with members of other faiths. As Jews use space to embody their religious experience, they necessarily engage with the ideas and patterns of people with a very different experience. The ethnography of public space, therefore, has constituted a recurring concern in studies of contemporary Jewry.

The patterns that emerge from this literature point to critical features of the construction of public space in modern religion more generally—and to the dynamics of public space across a range of modern social forms. In this brief paper, I would like to discuss two of these features that have particular relevance to the subject of this collection: the importance and complexity of boundary definition, and the potential of space as a site for cultural collaboration.

Let’s begin with the issue of boundaries, drawing on an example from my own fieldwork in Denmark. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen is not an imposing building: a squat rectangle of sooty yellow brick, it crouches behind a wrought iron fence on a narrow one way street in the center of the Danish capital. It’s quite lovely inside, with gilded columns and a magnificent Eastern wall, but a person passing by wouldn’t know that, and Jewish visitors to the city often pass it several times before they realize what it is. What usually alerts them isn’t the building itself, but rather its gate, a high-tech steel construction fitted out with security cameras, signs, and an impressive electronic lock. The gate isn’t manned, except during services and holidays; it has an intercom box, but no one ever answers it, and the overall impression it makes on visitors is one of implacable, silent exclusion. It shares this feature with other Jewish facilities in the city. The Jewish school, for example, sports an enormous high-security fence, a towering affair with a sliding gate and a crown of razor wire. As the Jews of Denmark define their community’s space, they place a special emphasis on its boundary, which they mark with symbols of rigidity and impermeability.

These symbols have a practical purpose, of course—Jews in Europe have always been targets of violence, and Copenhagen had a spate of terrorist bombings in the 1980s. More recently, tensions between Jews and Muslims in the cities have sparked a number of minor assaults, which have left Jews less certain of the security that has long characterized their experience in Denmark. As with most security systems, however, the symbolic dimensions of these gates carry as much importance as their instrumental ones, conveying a vivid impression of the relationship between inside and outside. This is perhaps an especially important subject for the Danish Jews, a religious and ethnic minority with extraordinarily deep ties to the larger society. The Jewish space defined by these barriers is one of the few visible manifestations of the Jewish presence in Denmark. No Jewish neighborhoods exist in Copenhagen, nor do conspicuously Jewish shops, restaurants, or businesses; the lives of Jews are inextricably entwined with those of non-Jews, both in their daily lives and, in most cases, in their family relationships. Most Jews dress, speak, work, and play very much like their non-Jewish neighbors and relatives, and defining the contours of the Jewish community represents a difficult and enduring problem.

Jews disagree strenuously on just what those contours might be, proposing and advancing differing understandings of what makes someone Jewish, and why it matters. They share, however, a notion that there is a Jewish community, and that this community is something distinctive. Almost all Danish Jews whom I’ve interviewed, for example, have stated firmly that they could recognize other Jews on the street; while they didn’t agree on what would enable them to do that, they were certain that Jews possessed certain distinctive and unambiguous properties, and that these properties derived from Jewish culture. Jews might live their lives among Danes—indeed, they had to—but they remained Jews, and when they entered Jewish space they belonged there fully. For all their disagreements about the nature of Jewish private and public spaces, then, Jews shared a common view of the boundary between them and non-Jews, a boundary that possessed many of the characteristics of the security fence: firm, visible, unambiguous, and yet selective, a sort of semipermeable membrane that allowed Jews to pass in and out while keeping others at bay.

For the Danish Jews, the delineation of a boundary between public and private space poses an important symbolic problem, one that requires a very particular kind of solution. Such problems recur continually in the ethnography of diaspora Jewry, as Jews negotiate the endlessly complicated relationships between their public and private worlds. One of my favorites is Peter Vincent and Barney Warf’s discussion of eruvim, the symbolic boundaries that delimit Jewish private space in many Western cities. Jewish religious law, known as halakha, regulates a number of activities on the Sabbath, particularly if they take place in public space; one may carry a dish of food between rooms of a house, for example, but not across a public square. An eruv consists of an enclosed exterior space defined for these purposes as private. Within the walls of an eruv, Jews may freely carry things on the Sabbath, and if the eruv encloses a Jewish neighborhood, some aspects of life become much more manageable.

The dispersion of Jews in Western cities makes such a physical enclosure impossible, of course, but inventive interpretations of religious law have replaced it with a symbolic one. What, after all, defines an enclosed space? More than anything else, it is the doorway, the boundary between the internal private space and the public one beyond. And what is a doorway, but two vertical members spanned by something horizontal? Using this definition, one might plausibly define a doorway as a pair of posts with a string stretched between them; and if one had a long enough string, and stretched it from one light post to the next, one might well enclose an entire city. Orthodox Jewish communities across the Western world have done precisely that, defining cities as large as Boston and Antwerp as eruvim using carefully stretched wires. In effect, they have reclassified public space as private, creating a physical Jewish enclave through purely symbolic means.

The construction of an eruv does not involve much difficult engineering, but by recasting the nature of public and private in a complex urban setting, it can raise some daunting cultural challenges. Some non-Jews, for example, object to the implicit claim that an eruv makes on a shared public space. The enclosure of a neighborhood evokes images of ownership, as well as an assertion that Jewish religiosity has a special force in that area. In a number of cases, the construction of eruvim has aroused protests from other residents who see them as a violation of the public nature of urban space. Some have awakened a corresponding suspicion from Jews, who question the legitimacy of so extensive an assertion of enclosure. It is, of course, convenient that the Medical Center of Queens constitutes an eruv, since this status allows Orthodox Jewish doctors to treat their patients on Saturdays. But can the definition of private space really be pushed this far? Given the diversity of both Jewish and non-Jewish social worlds in the modern city, establishing a boundary between them inevitably involves disagreement and opposition.

André Levy’s ethnography in Casablanca illustrates just how intricate that process can be. The Jews in his studies represent a small remnant of an ancient Moroccan Jewish community, a shrinking and besieged minority within an increasingly hostile Muslim city. Members of the community express their feelings of insecurity and fear quite openly, and they seek safety in the few Jewish enclaves left to them. Those enclaves, however, are not so much physical isolates as cultural ones; in a physical sense, virtually all Jewish space is shared and public. Jewish homes and institutions are scattered about the region of Ein-Diab, once a Jewish quarter but now primarily Muslim. Most of Levy’s informants had Muslim servants and workmen in their homes almost constantly, while the beaches where Jews gathered socially were open to anyone. To create a sense of an enclave under such circumstances, they relied on cultural patterns and social rules. Within the home, they used an elaborate system of manners that effectively ignored the servants, rendering them socially invisible despite their manifest physical presence. They created separate “Muslim” and “French” drawing rooms in their houses, to prevent undesirable interactions among guests of different faiths. On the beaches, they rented cottages in blocks to create a sense of group space, and they interacted with Muslim neighbors primarily through stylized forms of cards games. Through such efforts, Levy’s informants established a boundary that felt quite palpable, for all its physical tenuousness, to the point where Jews routinely described themselves—approvingly—as living in a ghetto.

Such boundary work represents a central concern for most Jewish communities, and it offers an instructive model for the delineation of public space among religious groups more broadly. One lesson it offers has to do with opportunities for collaboration, and for that, let us return briefly to the synagogue gate in Copenhagen.

It would be easy to characterize the fence around the synagogue as a Jewish construction, a line drawn by the Jewish community between itself and the outside world. That wouldn’t be entirely accurate, however, because it would miss the active role of outsiders in drawing that line. The gate does open, after all, especially on Saturdays and holidays, when anywhere from a few dozen to several thousand Jews assemble for religious services. At such times it may stand unlocked for several hours, manned by a pair of tall young men in yarmulkes who screen those who try to enter. Regulars are waved in with a smile; others are gently stopped and questioned, asked why they want to come in and whether they’re carrying anything. (Carrying anything more than a house key would violate the rules of the Sabbath.) These questions are serious ones; while a Jewish tourist would certainly be allowed in for services, a curious gentile would almost certainly not. And if he tried to force his way in, he would find himself under arrest—taken into custody by the uniformed policemen standing across the street, leaning against their brightly colored patrol car with its silently flashing lights.

The police presence at Jewish services, like the gates themselves, represents a response to a genuine security threat. But like the gates, it also makes a symbolic statement, a statement of cooperation between state authorities and the Jewish community. The safety of the Jewish community carries important meanings in Denmark. Some of these meanings derive from the Second World War, when a dramatic sealift led by the resistance rescued almost all of the nation’s Jews from Nazi roundups. Others involve more recent associations, in which assaults on Jews by Muslims have fed into a widespread hostility to Muslim immigrants. Together, such associations give the state strong reasons to favor Jewish security, and to be seen doing so. Accordingly, in addition to the highly visible police presence, the state maintains cooperative relationships with the Jewish community’s security club, training members to guard the synagogue and sometimes authorizing them to carry weapons. The public boundary of Jewish space, in other words, is not merely a Jewish creation, but a collaborative endeavor with the authorities that regulate public space in Denmark.

The ethnography of diaspora Jewry offers a striking number of examples of this phenomenon, in which the construction of public space offers a medium for engagement and even reconciliation with other groups. In Turkey, for example, Marcy Brink-Danan has chronicled the interplay of Jewish and governmental interests in the very public election of a new chief rabbi in 2002. The movement of what was traditionally a private internal matter to the public sphere positioned the Jews advantageously with the new government; it provided examples of democratic institutions and religious toleration that reflected well on Turkey in the European Union. It also gave Jews a platform with which to express and critique their often-unhappy experiences with Turkish democracy. Nila Hofman has found similar patterns in Croatia, where a desire to enter the European Union encouraged the government to promote a much more public and active Jewish presence in Zagreb.

Some of the most intriguing of these engagements have occurred in Eastern Europe, in areas where the Holocaust obliterated Jewish populations with particular ferocity. In recent decades, for example, a growing stream of Jewish tourists has filtered into Kraków, Poland, including many American Jews looking for the villages from which their ancestors were expelled. These tourists create a market for Jewish public spaces – museums, shops, and restaurants featuring the Jewish culture of the region, a taste of the world of the tourists’ great-grandparents. No Jews are left to create such spaces, of course, and so Christian entrepreneurs have supplied the need. As Erica Lehrer reports in her haunting ethnography, local Christians have established an increasingly elaborate Jewish public sphere, including a Jewish bookstore and several cafes, all staffed by local non-Jewish Poles. Such enterprises may sound ghoulish in a way, but Lehrer argues that they represent something quite valuable: an opportunity for engagement between Jews and Poles, a setting in which to reconcile the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims of genocide.

I would like to close, as Lehrer does, by stressing the possibilities for engagement and reconciliation that the construction of public space raises. When anthropologists look at the public sphere, we tend to focus on conflict—conflict is easy enough to find, after all, and conflict is something that flows naturally from the interest-based models of motivation that contemporary anthropology tends to use. When religions enter the public arena, ethnographers fix almost reflexively on the tensions and clashes that result. Yet as Lehrer points out, the construction of public space is also an opportunity to overcome conflict, to subordinate the competing interests that animate different religious actors to a shared set of aims or values. For all the conflicts that lie among them, most religious groups in complex societies want to coexist, and their ability to do so begins with the definition of a common space within which such coexistence is possible. Exploring the complex processes through which this definition occurs, and learning how it can succeed and fail, represents one of our great opportunities to contribute to the well-being of the communities we study.