Home Local How ancient Jewish religious law influenced the design of a bike bridge in West Rogers Park

How ancient Jewish religious law influenced the design of a bike bridge in West Rogers Park

by staff
  • Orthodox Jewish people cross the Stone Free Bridge.
  • Andrew Bedno for Chicago Reader

This Thursday after sundown, the streets of West Rogers Park will be perfumed with the aroma of hot oil.

The neighborhood, officially designated by the city of Chicago as the West Ridge community area, is home to the midwest’s largest Haredi, or strict Orthodox Jewish community (some members view the term “ultra-Orthodox” as disparaging.) It’s known for the dark suits, fedoras, and beards, or headscarves and long dresses, worn by many adherents. By some estimates, Jews of various stripes make up about one in three of the 77,000-plus residents of West Ridge. The area also includes vibrant Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Assyrian communities.

Thursday marks the first night of Hanukkah, the minor, but joyous, festival commemorating the liberation and rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BCE by the Jewish Maccabee rebels after it had been defiled by their Syrian-Greek oppressors. According to tradition, while there was only enough olive oil to light the temple’s menorah lamp for one day, miraculously it lasted a full eight, until more could be fetched.

So in addition to kindling menorahs and spinning dreidels in their homes, the Jews of West Rogers Park will indulge in oil-fried treats, including latkes and sufganiyot jelly doughnuts, to remember the Maccabean miracle. Normally Haredim would gather for parties and communal menorah-lighting ceremonies, such as for the giant candelabra at Daley Plaza, but the COVID-19 pandemic poured water on those traditions this year.

Nowadays West Rogers Park’s strict Orthodox community is primarily located between Peterson Avenue and Howard Street, and concentrated west of California Avenue. That boundary gave its name to native son Adam Langer‘s 2004 memoir Crossing California.

The local Haredi community is sometimes viewed as being closed off to outsiders, but it recently got a new entryway. On November 10, city officials finally cut the ribbon on the $3.4 million Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bridge, which links two segments of the bike trail that parallels the North Shore Channel, the western boundary of West Ridge, just north of Lincoln Avenue.

Fifteen years earlier, feisty 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone blocked the construction of the already-designed and funded span under mysterious circumstances, much to the chagrin of local bicyclists. The longtime Council member was defeated by Debra Silverstein in 2011 and passed away in 2014, and Silverstein relaunched the project. In light of the span’s checkered history, I’ve dubbed it the Stone Free Bridge, after the eponymous Jimi Hendrix song.

Ribbon-cutting for the Stone Free Bridge. Alderman Silverstein is third from the left. - JOHN GREENFIELD

  • Ribbon-cutting for the Stone Free Bridge. Alderman Silverstein is third from the left.
  • John Greenfield

After the ceremony, Chicago Department of Transportation staff members pointed out a squarish steel archway on the east side of the bow truss bridge that I hadn’t noticed before. They said the structure was added to the span at the behest of Orthodox Jews as a portal to the West Rogers Park Eruv.

An eruv (pronounced “AY-roove”) is a symbolic enclosure around a Jewish community within which activities are permitted that would otherwise be banned during the Sabbath, Friday sunset to Saturday sundown (called Shabbat in Hebrew and Shabbos in Yiddish), as well as on Yom Kippur. An eruv is typically bounded by existing walls, utility poles, and wires, with additional infrastructure added if necessary to complete the circuit according to halakha, Jewish religious law. There’s also an eruv that straddles Lakeview and Lincoln Park by the lake, plus others in the northern suburbs of Lincolnwood, Skokie, Buffalo Grove, Northbrook, and Highland Park.

The CDOT staffers were fuzzy on exactly who requested the arch, as well as the function of the eruv, so I reached out to Silverstein for more info. The alderman is Orthodox herself, although not strictly so—she avoids driving on Shabbat, which is prohibited, but wears typical street clothes. She said a member of the West Rogers Park Eruv committee met with CDOT to discuss how to incorporate the bridge into the ritual enclosure.

Transportation department spokesperson Mike Claffey confirmed that, adding that the cost of the arch “was minimal in terms of the project budget.”

Neither Silverstein nor CDOT would tell me straight out who the committee representative was. But Silverstein referred me to the Chicago Rabbinical Council for more info on the eruv and other transportation-related matters in the Haredi community.

Rabbi Yona Reiss, chief rabbinical judge at CRC, explained that strict Orthodox Jews, or as he called them “Torah-observant Jews,” aren’t easily taxonomized into specific classes. Rather, there’s a continuum of “different flavors and degrees of dress and practice.”

For example, Rabbi Reiss said while all Orthodox Jewish people should strive to dress in a way that “respects modesty and dignity,” there are varying opinions on what that means. Observant males cover their heads with a yarmulke out of deference to God, and some wear a tallit katan, a version of a prayer shawl, under their garments so that the fringe is visible, “as a reminder to observe all the mitzvot,” or biblical commandments. An edict from the book of Leviticus has been translated as “You shall not shave the corners of your head,” which some Haredim interpret as mandating sidelocks and/or beards for those who can grow them.

Strict Orthodox females typically wear long dresses, keep their shoulders and arms covered, and avoid necklines that drop below the collarbone. Married women are supposed to conceal their hair, although some accomplish this by wearing wigs, Reiss said.

During the bridge ribbon-cutting, which took place on a Tuesday, I was surprised to see what appeared to be a Haredi woman jogging on the North Shore Channel Trail in a longish dress, leggings, and a headscarf. But Reiss said, other than during Shabbos, there aren’t any particular restrictions on physical activity and transportation. “As long as you can maintain modesty, exercise is a good thing.”

Of course, on the day of rest it’s another story. Recreation or play is generally frowned upon, with some allowances made for young children. Biking is not permitted, except for toddlers’ tricycles, and there’s no traveling in cars or on transit except for medical emergencies. Therefore, Orthodox Jews tend to plan their lifestyles around walking to synagogue.

When I stopped by the neighborhood on a recent Friday as the sun sank low, the sidewalks were bustling with black-clad men, women, and children hurrying to Shabbat services. The streets were relatively tranquil since their cars were parked.

Walking on a Friday at sunset in West Rogers Park. - JOHN GREENFIELD

  • Walking on a Friday at sunset in West Rogers Park.
  • John Greenfield

The ritual perimeter makes it practical to observe Talmudic law, which forbids carrying objects outside of one’s home on the Sabbath, save for the clothes you’re wearing, Reiss explained. The eruv, Hebrew for “mixing,” addresses this rule by symbolically combining all households within the boundaries into one symbolic domestic space. Therefore, within the district it’s acceptable to carry your house key, a prayer book, eyeglasses, or medicine, and push a baby stroller or use a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair.

A woman pushes a stroller to Congregation Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair in West Rogers Park at Sundown on a Friday evening. Without the eruv, using the pram would violate Sabbath rules. - JOHN GREENFIELD

  • A woman pushes a stroller to Congregation Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair in West Rogers Park at Sundown on a Friday evening. Without the eruv, using the pram would violate Sabbath rules.
  • John Greenfield

On the other hand, muktzeh, items that can’t be carried on Shabbos, even within one’s home, include money, wallets, purses, phones, writing implements, office keys, and other objects associated with commerce or labor. Even umbrellas are forbidden, which must make walking to synagogue a challenge when there’s a downpour.

The website for the West Rogers Park Eruv includes a hotline residents can call after 2 PM on Fridays to double-check that the wall, wire, and post perimeter, which is inspected regularly, is still intact. “Please remember that if the eruv is not operational, carrying in the public domain may be a serious transgression,” the site warns.

click to enlarge Map of the West Rogers Park Eruv - WEST ROGERS PARK ERUV COMMITTEE

  • Map of the West Rogers Park Eruv
  • West Rogers Park Eruv Committee

After calling a few more rabbis listed on the website, I tracked down the person who met with CDOT, a real estate lawyer and eruv committee founder named Robert W. Matanky. He identifies as “a centrist Orthodox Jew—I’m engaged with the world; I’m not insular.”

Matanky was involved in early discussions about the bike bridge back in the mid-2000s, “because it was going to disturb the eruv boundary.” Halakhic law requires that if there is an opening in the ritual enclosure, there must be two objects signifying doorposts, plus a header. “The design was missing the door.”

When Alderman Stone vetoed the span in 2005, he publicly stated multiple reasons for his opposition, none of which made much sense. But Matanky said Stone was hoping to use the money for a pedestrian bridge over the channel a half mile north of Lincoln near Albion Avenue, to provide a shortcut for people walking between residential areas. It’s likely that didn’t happen because the bike path doesn’t exist that far north on the east bank, so the structure would have been useless for making the needed trail connection.

After Alderman Silverstein rebooted the initiative years later, Matanky met with CDOT architects and engineers to request an eruv-friendly design. “I think we came up with something aesthetically very nice, so everybody came out a winner.”

Establishing, inspecting, and maintaining an eruv is a surprisingly complex endeavor. For example, Matanky said that to delineate the southern boundary of the West Rogers Park district years ago, the committee had to get permission from CDOT to attach brackets to existing light poles and string cable on the south side of Peterson from Western Avenue to Lincoln, and then northwest on Lincoln to Kedzie. “That was done without tax money, using contributions from community members.”

But Rabbi Reiss said all that effort is worth it. “Shabbos is a beautiful day, and the eruv enables people to enjoy it to the fullest, in the proper sanctity of the Sabbath.”  v

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