by Vanessa L. Ochs
[The following essay by Vanessa Ochs was originally published by CrossCurrents as part of a special issue on “Rethinking Jewish Theology” in the winter of 1999/2000 (Vol. 49, No. 4). We reprint it here as it connects so well with the recent issue (71:2; March 2021) of CrossCurrents on “Jewish Objects, Jewish Affects” and helps indicate the work the journal has been doing for decades. –Editors]
An elderly Jewish informant in Barbara Myerhoff’s book, Number Our Days, tells a story which he attributes to Martin Buber to prove to his community that a ceremony whose authenticity some doubted was indeed the real thing. “It tells here about two men who are worried about the holiness of the Sabbath. ‘What is it that makes something holy?’ they ask. They decide to make a test to see what happens when they have Sabbath on a weekday. So they make the Sabbath in the middle of the week, everything they do right, and it feels the same way as on Saturday. This is alarming, so they take the problem to the rabbi to explain. Here is what the rabbi tells them: ‘If you put on Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps it is quite right that you had a feeling of Sabbath holiness. Because Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps have the power of drawing the light of the Sabbath holiness down to earth.'” (1978:105)
The Revelatory Nature of Things
More scholars of religion are now acknowledging what religious or spiritual people worldwide have long known, from observation, lived experience and intuition: that material objects—things made by people—are vessels that create, express, embody, and reflect sacredness, or, to use the Jewish term which describes abstract and concrete movement toward sacredness: kedushah. Material objects are not just tangible stand-ins for the stuff of greater weight and value that count more or mean more in the big academic and cosmic schemes of things—such as ideas and ideologies in texts, beliefs held by a people or expressed in theologies, and dutifully recited articles of faith. Like others whose research leads them to consider the illumination that is possible when the connections between religion and material culture are made (including John Cort, Colleen McDannell, Leigh Schmidt, Robert Orsi, and Jenna Weissman Joselit), I am not suggesting that objects are more eloquent, more instructive, or more essential than sacred texts and sacred beliefs in constructing religiosity, establishing religious identity, or studying religions. Following the lead of those scholars mentioned above, I am suggesting that objects are neither less eloquent nor less pivotal either. As John Cort has asked, what would happen if we looked at text-heavy and less text-bound religions with “material culture as our starting point”? “If we look first at the objects and base our attempts at understanding on them, will we emerge from our study with a different view of the tradition?” (1996: 615)
People who live and construct religious, spiritual lives have known that things are teachers and things are revelatory; they know it in their bodies, as common sense, and express their knowledge in the verity of aphorisms: “clothes make the man,” “you are what you eat.” With chicken-or-the-egg circularity, we make things, things make us; things make us, we make things. If this were not true about things in Judaism, the central mitzvah (sacred obligation) of Passover would be reading about or contemplating bondage in Egypt, but it is not. Were the real matzah (the sacred obligation one bakes or buys, displays, eats, and hides) less important than the abstract idea of matzah, Jews could read or think matzah, and neither make, use or consume it. Rather, the experience of bondage, the memory of bondage, and the possibility of new expressions of bondage are made tangibly present in the matzah, the flat cracker that proclaims in its shape, taste, crumbling fragility, and digestive after-effect: “This is not-bread, this is the not-bread of affliction.” So the matzah matters, and, consequently, so does the box it comes in—the brand name, the country of provenance (especially if it’s Israel), the competing sale prices at Waldbaum’s and the Food Emporium published in full-page New York Times ads, the rabbi whose name certifies, endorses, and seems to extend enduring blessing to the purchased matzah. The plate the matzah rests on matters, and so does the cover placed on it (crude, but beloved, for it was made by one’s child back in nursery school, or costly and beautiful, designed and embroidered by artisans and representing one’s good taste or economic fortune or the ritual of marking weddings with the gifting of Judaica). And it matters where on the Passover table the matzah is placed, and who sits nearest to it, and who is selected to uncover it, point to it, bless it, divide it for others, and determine who gets it first and who gets what size. It matters who piles the matzah high with horseradish and haroset, and who is chosen to hide it, and who to find it, and who to subsidize the reward for its discoverer. And what an important thing that is, the retrieved hidden matzoh, for only its discovery permits and creates the conclusion of the Passover seder.
In Judaism and, I imagine, most other faith traditions, the spiritual is material. Without things, in all their thingness, there is no Passover, only an idea of Passover; and a faint and fuzzy idea it would be, like honor, loyalty, and remorse—like, perhaps, God, and more surely, monotheism. Things denote one’s belonging, one’s participation, possibly one’s convictions. Listen to Jews interrogate each other about the intensity of their commitment and connection to certain fundamental indicators of conscious, intentionally lived Jewish life. They do not typically ask, deuteronomically: “Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?” They will not ask, decalogically: “Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?” Rather, they inquire about the materiality of lived-out beliefs and habits of conviction: “On the Sabbath, do you drive your car? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks? Do you cover your head, wear a wig, put on tefillin, hang a mezuzah on your door, sleep in separate beds, eat cold food out, light menorahs, spin dreidles.”
Material Culture in the Jewish Home
Where are most of these things that point toward and create Jewish life and identity but in the home—in Bachelard’s words, “our corner of the world… our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the world”? (4). Within Jewish homes, things, people, and even times of day and seasons of the year and of life interact in a fluid process, through which things make the home Jewish, by which things are ani mated by Jewish life and absorbed by it in specifically Jewish ways. This idea is well-expressed in Sylvia Rothchild’s autobiographical account of the holiday Shavuot, which she refers to in the Yiddish, Shveeis: “On Shveeis, the three small rooms our family of five called home became a magical place, a stage, a bower redolent with the smell of fresh green leaves, roses and peonies. My pleasure was not only in the transformation we brought about but, even more, in the seasonal discovery that it was possible to alter what was familiar and prosaic, that escape could come not only in daydreams but through physically changing things” (Reading Ruth, 146).
Anthropologist Leedom Lefferts, who studies the spiritual lives of Thai textiles, has suggested this provocative question (personal communication, 1997): If things have social lives just as persons do, could we consider that they have religious/spiritual lives as well? To this I would add another question: Could we consider the possibility that things in a Jewish home have Jewish identities, as solid, erratic, or angst-filled as the Jewish identities of people? For just as memory recovers lost, stolen, and rejected worlds and ways of being left behind, do not objects—those present, those retrieved, and even those dimly recalled—do the same?
In my anthropological research on Jewish-American material culture in homes, I have been attending to how my human informants, the creators and keepers of Jewish homes (more often women than men, but not always), reflect upon how things make their homes Jewish, and how things found in the home facilitate Jewish living and create, maintain, and transmit Jewish identities. Three years into this project, I have been struck over and again: If informants do not come from Orthodox homes, and if they are not rabbis, they routinely express anxiety that I may have come to the wrong place and am wasting my time. Despite an impressive inventory we have just taken together in a home of over a thousand Jewish things, some are bound to claim that their Jewish home is still not “Jewish enough” or “really Jewish.” They will acknowledge that while their home can be read as “Jewish space,” by outsiders—Jewish or not—it may not be “sufficiently Jewish” to transmit Judaism successfully to the next generation. (Visible transmission to the next generation is the fashionable contemporary benchmark in many Jewish communities for one’s success as a Jewish parent: raising children who stay within the fold and marry within the fold because they have come from what is called “a good Jewish home.”) One informant claimed that the presence of Jewish objects in her home that do not always get used in the “right” ways and at the proper times, or are used with too little confidence and too little understanding, serve for her as concrete, continual, and condemning evidence that her Judaism is marginal and inauthentic. Other informants suggested that if I wanted to see a “real” good Jewish home, I should look elsewhere. While I have not taken their advice and gone elsewhere, I have been trying to grapple with the questions raised by their resistance to seeing the Jewishness of their most Jewish homes. Why are my informants so anxious about what does and does not count as authentic Judaism? Why are they overwhelmed by the pervasive feeling that they cannot create an aura of Jewish authenticity in their environments?
In my research, I have identified three sometimes-useful categories of things as we look at what makes a Jewish home Jewish and how these things do the making. In the remainder of this article, I intend to con duct a brief tour of one home that “makes Jewishness” by its objects—even when the home-keeper claims that the home is insufficiently Jewish—and then outline those categories which have helped me organize objects to see better how things make a home Jewish.
The Jewish Home Tour
My informant, Susan, is a past president of a Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey, the mother of three daughters who have celebrated bat mitzvahs. Professionally, she is a quilter; she is married to a doctor. She received some formal Hebrew school education as a child and teenager, reads Hebrew, and has studied Jewish history, beliefs, and practices for two intensive years; she can chant Hebrew prayers as well as the ancient tunes for the readings from Torah and Prophets. A leader in her community Jewish federation, chairing education and outreach committees, she is also a member of the Jewish women’s organization Hadassah. She has participated in a women’s rosh hodesh (new month) group that studies books and issues in women and Judaism and is a Lion of Judah, a woman honored for her substantial annual financial contributions to the Jewish community.
Susan meets me at her front door, and as we stand underneath her mezuzah, a cloisonné objet d’art she has brought back from one of many “missions” to Israel, she explains that she is always taken aback when friends or acquaintances tell her that she is the most Jewish person they know. They turn to her for information: Can you serve rice on Passover? On which side of the door do you hang a mezuzah; and what is Shavuot (beyond blintzes), anyway? She laughs, saying: “I fear for Judaism if I am the most Jewish person anyone knows. Though I am to the core Jewish, I am not an authority on learning and observance.”
She narrates her Jewishness this way: “We’re not religious-religious, but we always light Shabbos candles and have challah, even if we’re going out after. Daisy, our golden retriever, comes and sits like a perfect dog as soon as she hears the challah coming out of its plastic bag. And after the blessing, she gets some. We bless her just like we bless the girls. Daisy knows when it’s Friday night.”
Despite Susan’s protest that she is not sufficiently Jewish by her own standards (although her dog may indeed be a Jew in good standing of the Pavlovian denomination), she takes me on a detailed tour of the profoundly, explicitly Jewish home that she has made and that makes her. Her discussion of and reflection upon things in her Jewish home suggests that there must be blind spots in her Jewish identity—ways in which she can articulate, but not altogether acknowledge the Jewishness of her home, ways that keep her from claiming it.
Walking through the door, Susan says, “I notice the relationship between who people are and how they arrange their homes. So when I go into Jewish homes, I am acutely aware of the home atmosphere, what people choose to put places. Parts of my own home really reflect who I am, and parts of it, I just live with. To me, a Jewish home is books. They don’t have to be Jewish books. If I don’t see books, I don’t think it’s a real Jewish home. I am ordering more bookcases for my living room.” If Susan measured the Jewishness of her own house by books alone, she would score well. In her library, she will soon show me prayer books for everyday, Sabbath, and holidays, Hebrew dictionaries, books on Jewish literacy, Jewish histories, coffee-table art and photograph books of Jews and of Israel, and a respectable collection of texts that have emerged out of Jewish feminism and Jewish renewal.
But without looking further, she shows me a ring she wears, what she calls her “most significant piece of jewelry,” emphasizing the “Jew” in “jewelry.” She explains that her father used to sing in the synagogue chorus in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, and for his service received a ring with the Hebrew letter shin on it; either the shin stood for the word sh’ma (listen) or it was just his initial. He wore it always on his third finger. Hospitalized before his death, he called Susan to his bed, asking her to go to his jewelry box and get his ring. Susan got it and gave it to him. After her father died, the ring was given to her, and, she explains, assuming I will knit always.
Inside the house, there is what Susan calls “Jewish stuff” everywhere. “I love tzedaka (charity) boxes. And I try to have at least three of everything so I can give them to my three kids so they will know they came from me and my home. If you have spare coins, you can put them in any box, because many boxes are lying around.” (Indeed, there are standard JNF—Jewish National Fund Charity—boxes, but also boxes shaped like her synagogue, like her house, and like a chicken). “When a box is full, I confer with the family, and we decide where to give the money; it could be to something Jewish, or something like juvenile diabetes. And photos are very Jewish things: it’s important to have photos of family around the house because family is Jewish and that’s us, that’s who we are, and family’s important to me.” (“I say to ‘me,’ ” she adds, “because it means so much to me to arrange parts of the house.”)
In her house, mixed among valuable objets d’art and fanciful folk paintings, sculptures, and ceramics made by the Jews of Israel, Russia, Ethiopia, and America, are sentimental drawings and paintings from Prague and Israel. The imagery is familiar: Russian grandmothers in kerchiefs, milkmen like Tevya in villages like Anatevka, lions of Judah, doves of peace, stars of David. The others traveling on Susan’s mission to Israel, she says, “couldn’t scoop the paintings up fast enough.” Other artwork comes from a gallery near Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. “They look like Jerusalem and I love images of houses and neighborhoods, and I hung it next to my pictures of Cape Cod, which I also love.” Fine Jewish folk art paintings also come from the gallery. Susan explains, “I know it can seem extravagant, but I like leaving money there (in Israel, that is.)” She pauses to assess what my inventory may have already revealed: “Does this make a Jewish home? Not in itself, as anyone could hang up this stuff. But would they? It’s the gestalt. As my daughter Molly says, my Jewish things reflect Jewish actions.”
When we reach the dining room, Susan narrates the story of her father’s seders in his dining room. As Bachelard writes, “… the house is not experienced from day to day only, on the thread of a narrative, or in the telling of our own story.” Through dreams, through memories, “the various dwelling places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days” (5). “After my father died,” Susan says, “we had the seder at my brother’s house. We couldn’t have done it there in my father’s lifetime; my brother was not observant enough. But damn it, we said, we were going to have a meaningful seder, even without our father.” Susan questions the legitimacy of the Seders after her father’s death. “It’s not really authentic. It’s what we as a family can do. We got our own copying machine. This year, for two days before Passover, I copied from other hagaddahs I have collected, and cut and pasted. I was nuts. I took out the tear-jerker passages that were in the hagaddah.
I put together the seder the year right after my father died, because I decided, this year, I wanted to move forward. My father’s sister and cousins came. We had more than thirty people. Everyone came. I got a lady to help. The hagaddah I made isn’t ritually right, but it’s OK for us. I pass out my big collection of hagaddahs for people to look at and put out my three seder plates and everyone has their own kiddush cup.”
Susan shows me an eleven-page, stapled, xeroxed document called “The Rosenblum-Adler Family Hagaddah.” On the cover border is a clip-art multigenerational family in a circle dance; at the center is a jolly family toasting with cups of Passover wine. Captions extending from their mouths read: “L’Chaim! Yummy! Welcome! Passover Rocks” (referring, I presume, to the matzah balls.) As Susan explained, it is a stitched-together document, but the introduction appears to be hers. It reads: “Just as we sometimes deviate from the exact route on a printed map when we travel, we can make adjustments and deviations in this seder (order) too. But the basic signposts are here for us.” In the “Rosenblum-Adler Family Hagaddah,” the entire second half of the seder, that which follows the festive meal, is omitted, just as it is omitted in practice in many American-Jewish homes. Indeed, this hagaddah, which Susan calls “very liquid, with a slight feminist bent” does deviate. It ends with the eating of matzah, horseradish, and haroset, and a toast to freedom with a second cup of wine. The rest of the seder which follows the festive meal is omitted. Evaluating her creation, defending and critiquing it in one breath, Susan says, “There’s too much cognitive dissonance between what a rabbi and the hagaddah say you should do on Passover and what my family will actually do. You have to make traditions that can stick. At the same time, you have to be true about things.”
In a corner of the dining room hangs a brass Sabbath light, an exceedingly curious piece of Judaica in an American home. “People see it and say, ‘How come you have an eternal light in your dining room?’ But that’s not what it is. It’s a shabbos light from Kenny’s family. His family was not observant for the last generations, but they were very Jewish, from Baden-Baden, and this was their family heirloom. The family said to me, ‘You might appreciate this,’ and I was thrilled to have it.”
Inadvertently, Susan demonstrates the transformational capacity of things in a Jewish home as they become Jewish, or are designated to be so, by performing a Jewish function, for a first time, and then forever after. “I have this thing,” says Susan. “I turn things into Jewish ritual objects if I want to. In Prague,” (a place which she identifies as having deep Jewish meanings for her) “they have beautiful glasswork, so I wanted to bring something home, so I turned this chalice into a kiddush cup.” Chalices found in Paris, Prague, Boston, and Cape Cod also met similar fates. Brought home, they were dedicated—or they dedicated themselves—to sacred Jewish service, and now live together on a tray, a monastery of now-kiddush cups. Dreidls are, like kiddush cups, in abundance. “I keep my dreidl collection out all year. They range from the sublime—silver, ceramic, and cloisonné—to the ridiculous—plastic. I get them as gifts. I also turn things into dreidls. A top, a Christmas ornament: I make them dreidls. I like that.” In Susan’s hands, and in her home, homeless Jewish objects become ba’alei tshuvah, masters of return, rescued like Russian or Ethiopian Jews, and then subjected to being domesticated as American Jews. Non-Jewish objects submit to conversion.
I inventory the kitchen: piles of Sh’ma magazine, Moment, Tikkun, Hadassah, and Bon Appétit (dog-eared on pages for latkes and flourless Passover tortes). More prints of an old synagogue in Prague, image of Jewish people floating, a cross between Kabbalah and Chagall. No great art here: Susan says none cost more than $25, but all speak to her. “The image is Jewish, having them reminds me where I was, gives me a good luck charm. I like the mystical piece of it.” On a kitchen shelf, I inventory Jewish sounds: piles of CD’s of singer Paul Zim, classic cantorial pieces beloved by Susan’s father, Barbara Streisand, and Klezmer bands. On one wall is a framed needle point of the word SHALOM made twenty-five years ago, framed photographs of Susan as chair of the UJA Women’s division, bubbe and zayde dolls, over a dozen Jewish cookbooks, a refrigerator magneted with bar and bat mitzvah invitations and photographs of a nephew’s recent bar mitzvah, a synagogue calendar and directory, and more tzedaka boxes. On a shelf are Jewish videos (“Shalom Sesame,” an animated hagaddah, the Rugrats celebrating Passover), three challah trays, a tray of six sets of Shabbos candles, and a tray of silver kiddush cups that stays out always. Some were gifts, some inheritances from parents’ collection, others the booty of clandestine rescue missions. “I buy kiddush cups at antique shops. I take them away. I rescue them. I don’t want anyone who doesn’t know what they are to have them.”
Having scanned the surfaces of the kitchen, I request that we look behind closed doors: the refrigerator door, the cabinet doors, the food pantry. Susan grows tense for the first and only time and wants to assure me that here, in the “Really Jewish” Olympics, in the kitchen event, she is about to lose not only her standing but her very position as a contestant. “I do not keep kosher,” she admits apologetically, as if I might be disappointed, offended, or bound to judge her poorly. Then, she adds, as if she might qualify under shifted rules for a “Special Jewish” Olympics, “But we do have A LOT of food.” Still, in the refrigerator, I find a half-used Kosher-for-Passover bottle of horseradish, a jar of Manishevitz borscht, a bottle of Kedem Kosher Concord grape wine.
Susan explains that she gets very traditional around holiday times. “I am at my best on Jewish holidays. I make better chicken soup than my mother. I love shopping for the holidays. I love telling the vegetable man that I’ll need horseradish or soup greens.” She boasts that she makes special trips to the fancier bakery to buy Sabbath challahs, and jumps at the chance to find challahs that are “more tasty, more authentic.” This exuberance and ambition translates to making New Year honey cakes, Purim hamentaschen, all the Passover ceremonial foods, and nut and sponge cakes
Explaining her house-rules for partial kashrut, she says, “We don’t have pork products, but we do have shellfish”—expressing, as I hear it, a not-so-idiosyncratic distinction between signs that are more and less potent indicators of boundaries in Jewish life. When we get to the freezer, there are packets of meats from the kosher butcher. I am surprised by the presence of kosher meat in a non-kosher home. Because I cannot understand why she goes to the added trouble of securing and paying more for kosher meat, I ask if she finds kosher meat fresher or tastier. It actually has nothing to do with the meat, she explains. She has kosher meat delivered by a kosher butcher once a month because she likes the idea of the kosher butcher delivery man coming to her home, as it reminds her of such deliveries growing up in her childhood home. The deliveryman brings more than a box of meat. Says Susan, “When the kosher meat delivery man comes, I feel a sense of Jewish community.” Arriving, he’ll tell her that he’s late because he just came from the Mandelbaums, and they ordered double, because the children and grandchildren were coming in from Israel for all of Passover. Departing, he’ll tell her that he is not going to the Shapiros because Mrs. Shapiro is in a nursing home, and Mr. Shapiro is staying with his daughter in Montclair. Leaving for the next home, the deliveryman, Susan knows, will take with him the salient news of her household and deliver it, along with his goods, to the next house.
Idiosyncratic kashrut extends to Passover. In Susan’s basement, stored next to a basket of hagaddahs, Israeli ceramic candlesticks, and a seltzer bottle from her youth, is a box marked “Passover dishes.” Why would she keep separate dishes for Passover when she does not keep separate milk and meat dishes for the whole year? Susan explains how she makes sense of this seeming curiosity. “I know this isn’t quite right, but it works for us. Growing up, I remember unpacking the Passover dishes from a box as we got ready for the holiday. So I keep the tradition. I couldn’t use paper plates either, because it’s very important to set a beautiful Passover table.”
Then there are clothes. As we go up to her bedroom, Susan points to the colorful vest and nice jeans she is wearing. Jokingly, she says she is dressed to the nines to perform a weekly mitzvah, taking a woman out for lunch to divert her from an arduous course of chemotherapy. Other clothes and objects are also mitzvah-connected. Hanging in Susan’s bed room closet is her Lion of Judah pin, a premium given to women who make outstanding annual financial donations to UJA. Susan explains that when she wears her Lion of Judah pin on a certain suit for a UJA event or luncheon, it gets to stay on that suit, offering it attention and dignity, until the next event and the next suit are selected. Susan says she is somewhat uncomfortable with the message a woman wearing her Lion of Judah pin can broadcast: “Oh look who she thinks she is that she has so much money.” It has a good side, she admits, as it shows the extent of one’s commitment. In her jewelry box, she counts sixteen different Jewish stars (some from childhood), one pincushion of Torah Fund pins representing donations to the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), and another pin cushion of Hadassah pins.
Susan’s bedroom is a landscape of shrines containing photographs of relatives who are ill. Says Susan, “I have this thing about talismans. My Aunt is sick, so I have photos of her.” Framed birth announcements for her three children and her own wedding announcement are all very important Jewish objects, she says. In her dresser is a random assortment of kippot (head coverings) from bar and bat mitzvahs, along with a Bukharian embroidered pillbox kippah she wears when it is her turn to do “bima-duty” on the altar next to the Rabbi as a representative of the Board of Directors. On her bathroom mirror is a sticker the rabbi gave out to the congregation on Rosh Hashanah some years back. It says, “I am created in the Image of God.”
How to Make Sense of Material Culture
As I said earlier, three categories of objects help me to understand and experience what I am seeing. I trust such categories can be useful as methods of making meaningful groupings for other students of religion who start from home and material culture.
First, certain standard markers serve as unambiguous “signs” or “indications” that a Jewish home has been intentionally constructed, and is being continually constructed—by the objects themselves and by a range of interactions people have with these objects. Call this first category of objects: articulate, revelatory, self-evident, and unambiguous. One could call objects in this category: signs which say “a Jew lives here”; props which say, “I am needed in Jewish life”; or catalysts which say, “my very presence creates Jewish ways of being and doing.” Often they are all three: signs, props, and catalysts.
Such things in this category facilitate, instigate, or suggest Jewish ways of being, create and enforce Jewish identities, and serve as reminders that the home one is in is Jewish. One informant has described such objects as the boundary-keepers she sets up in order to distinguish and protect the Jewish identity of her home from the largely non-Jewish world in which her family lives. One could just as easily say that it is not this informant who is setting up the objects to create boundaries, but the objects themselves that create a boundaried world in which my informant lives. In Jewish-American homes, the most familiar and visible objects in this category might include a mezuzah, Chanukah decorations, Sabbath candle sticks that are displayed and used, a kiddush wine cup (often silver), a prayer book, a Bible and other ancient sacred Jewish texts, a Jewish calendar (distributed by a synagogue, kosher butcher, or Jewish funeral parlor), a drawer of yarmulkes harvested from various celebrations, a Chanukah menorah, artwork depicting Jerusalem, displays of New Years, Chanukah and Passover greeting cards that change with the season, sentimental or nostalgic artistic images of serene shtetl mothers in scarves lighting Sabbath candles or bearded old rabbis worshipping and studying in destroyed European villages, tzedaka coin boxes designated for some Jewish cause or charity, kosher wines, loaves of challah, the boxes of matzah. And just about anything with Hebrew letters written on it: from an illuminated ketubah (wedding contract) and Hebrew letters in primary colors magneted onto a refrigerator to a red and-white can of Israeli Coca-Cola, brought back as a souvenir from an El A1 flight to Israel
Things that are signs, props, and catalysts enter one’s home in a variety of ways: as purchases, souvenirs, gifts (from relatives, friends, and the Jewish community), inheritances, hand-me-downs. Sometimes they are quietly “borrowed” from synagogues, in a kind of surreptitious lifetime loan. Sometimes they are acquired once in a lifetime—like a pair of silver candle sticks; sometimes they are reacquired annually and consumed or used up—like Chanukah candles or a Jewish calendar; and sometimes they are acquired annually, and after they have surpassed their initial intended use, they are saved and transformed. I am thinking of etrogs (citrons used on Sukkot) turned into pomanders (to be smelled at the end of the Sabbath in the Havdallah ceremony) and pieces of afikoman (the matzoh that is hidden and then found at the Passover seder) hung over doors as amulets to increase one’s blessing. Frequently, things in this category have important stories that are attached to them or that are readily and even customarily evoked by seeing them or using them. When the story is so central, sometimes the object is not used as it is intended to be and, instead, remains on constant or periodic display, as an aide-memoire to recapture the story. One kind of story, the story of acquisition, is frequently elicited by these objects. In the telling, one learns who gave the object, why they gave it, when they gave it (particularly if it was a special occasion, like a birth, bar or bat mitzvah, or wedding), what the giving meant initially and what it means now as a connection between giver and recipient. Barbara Myerhoff would include what she calls symbolic jewelry. She describes the elderly Jewish women wearing “expensive gifts from their children—golden medallions bearing grandchildren’s names; ‘Tree of Life’ necklaces studded with real pearls; Stars of David; and the golden letter ‘chai,’ Hebrew for life and luck. All were announcements of connections, remembrance, and esteem” (Number our Days, 206-7).
As Kopytoff has demonstrated (64-91), objects as well as people have a life span, stories that can be narrated about their lives and network of relationships. Just as stories of human birth matter (the story of when you were born), the birth story of an object, or its entrance into one’s home, matters. Another story that Jewish objects evoke is the miracle story of rescue or survival against great odds. The object that first comes to mind is a broken silver Sabbath breadknife that one family hid under floorboards during the Holocaust and later retrieved, the sole tangible surviving sign of their Jewish material life. Some objects in this first category are considered to have higher level of holiness, kedushah, than others because of some aspect intrinsic to its structure or composition. The mezuzah, for example, contains parchment with verses of scripture written on it; the holiness is raised to an even higher power because these verses contain the written name of God. The holiness quotient of the mezuzah would be reduced if there were a mistake or defect in the writing or a tear in the parchment. Holiness would also be reduced if it were installed on the wrong side of the doorway or if it were placed too high or too low.
While the base-level holiness quotient of a mezuzah could remain the same from home to home, non-intrinsic and personal or sentimental aspects of an object also increase its holiness (one could also substitute the word “preciousness.”) For instance, one woman takes out her deceased father’s yarmulke and prayer book each Friday night and places them next to the Sabbath candlesticks she lights. As it happens, she neither wears the yarmulke nor reads from that fraying prayer book, but because they evoke and represent her father’s presence, and remind her of how the Sabbath entered his home, they are objects of higher sanctity, more potent or powerful than other yarmulkes and prayer books she owns, even if they are not used in conventional ways. Thus, while objects within this category often have codified rules and customary or traditional expectations connected to them, idiosyncratic usage—or personalization—can honorably prevail and even add value. For comparison, I note the Pentecostal prayer handkerchiefs, which were thought to procure healing, studied by R. Marie Griffith (1997). The handkerchief was considered to be a “sacramental object of divine prayer” which one sweated and prayed over; “… these objects themselves were thought to be saturated with a kind of power through these signs of intensive prayer.” When speaking of objects in this category, my informants acknowledge there is often a distinction between what these objects “really mean” (the theological meaning a rabbi would know) and what these objects actually did mean to them once, do mean to them now, and will potentially mean when and if they are inherited. Colleen McDannell enforces these distinctions in Material Christianity (17), where she observes that meanings “articulated by a controlling institutional body with a long history of custom and tradition” may not help us “understand the personal meanings that people find in their daily use of religious objects,” which may mirror neither the “intentions of the clerical elite not express the idiosyncratic whims of the masses.” In this respect, a mezuzah purchased in Jerusalem on one’s twenty fifth anniversary will have a different valence than a mezuzah found in a synagogue gift-shop. The anniversary mezuzah might be seen has having greater protective power and potency precisely because it contains and activates both “powerful personal memories” and “collective memory,” a distinction McDannell makes.
Placement of objects in this first category matters. Sometimes Jewish law dictates the placement. The mezuzah goes on the right side of the door post; the menorah goes near a window; the Sabbath challah goes on the table. Other times, family custom dictates the placement: holiday cards go on the refrigerator in one house, on the mantle piece in another, or the piano in yet another. A public-private distinction may govern placement. A “shalom” plaque on one’s front door is meant for general consumption and illumination, whereas a father’s tefillin bag or bat mitzvah jewelry may be kept in a drawer as a private keep sake. There is also a distinction between objects that are used and objects that are displayed consciously to create a shrine-like presence communicating commitment and belief.
This first category embraces a subset of objects whose very absence or prohibition from use at specific times points loudly, articulately, and evidently to the Jewishness of the space. Absent (or typically absent) are specifically “other” objects such as Christmas trees, wreaths, colored lights, and wicker baskets of painted eggs and chocolate bunnies, or bacon and its smell. Prohibited, and hence placed out of sight or otherwise rendered out-of-commission in particular times and places, are in some Jewish homes: cars, money, and fire on Sabbath; bread and flour on Passover; mirrors and leather shoes in the mourner’s house.
In a second category are objects that are not in and of themselves considered explicitly or uniquely Jewish-signifying objects that create the Jewishness of a home and point to it (for oneself and for others who enter the space). Nonetheless, they also function, in many Jewish homes, to embody, create, and express kedushah by their actual presence, by a hidden presence of which one is consciously or subliminally aware, and also by the whole range of interactions to which such objects are subject or suggest and provoke. They participate in the fulfillment of mitzvot, the commandments, or as Max Kaddushin would say, “Jewish value concepts.” While the definition of this category might seem curious, the objects that constitute it are not. Consider books, some of which might be by Jews or about Judaism—but also all books in abundance, filling shelves, piled on floors, spilling off of tables, scattered in children’s rooms. Consider foods, some which are readily recognized as traditional Jewish foods for every day or holidays: bagels, chicken soup, the Chanukah latkes, the Purim hamentaschen, gefilte fish, and horseradish. But also included is all food in abundance, a pantry and refrigerator sufficiently overstocked to serve one who “cooks for an army” or one who urges those who dine to consume more: “Eat, eat. You eat like a bird.” Consider shrine-like displays of photographs, of children, of parents, of ancestors, of extended families assembled at what Jews call “affairs.” L’dor va’dor, these things point from one generation to another: family matters, love matters, keeping connections matter, increasing and multiplying matter.
Ordinary Objects Transformed
In a third category, I place a whole range of material objects that could be found in any home, but whose meanings and functions shift within the context of a Jewish home. A dish is a dish, but in a Jewish home where kashrut (the dietary laws) is observed, the dishes of a certain color or pattern placed in a particular and separate cabinet become and remain milchig (milk) dishes, and the dishes in another cabinet become and remain fleishig (meat). The telephone is a telephone, but when it’s being used by a Jew who is checking on a sick friend who lives far away, it is a klei kodesh, a holy vessel used in the practice of bikkur cholim, the commandment to connect to the sick. All of the equipment one uses in house cleaning—cleansing powder, mop, Windex, Pinesol, vacuum cleaner—is just cleaning equipment. But in the Jewish home where Sabbath is observed by cleaning one’s home be forehand, we have again klei kodesh, holy vessels that create and point to the Sabbath, tangibly, experientially, and sensuously.
In each case, we have objects that are endowed with meaning, memory, and sacred purposes—they are not changed, but they have the potential to become charged, so to speak. Quoting Robert Armstrong, McDannell writes that “in all cultures certain things exist which, though they may appear to be ordinary objects, yet are treated in ways quite different from the ways in which objects are usually treated” (18). She suggests that people “activate or enliven” such objects, but we might consider that it is also possible that the objects “activate or enliven” persons.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated from the French by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964.
Cort, John. “Art, Religion and Material Culture: Some Reflections on Method,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 3 (1996).
Griffith, R. Marie. “Prayer Handkerchiefs.” In The Material History of American Religion Project News, Spring 1997.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commodification as Process.” In The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appadurai, pp. 64-91. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Meyerhoff, Barbara G. Number Our Days. New York: Dutton, 1978.
Rothchild, Sylvia. “Growing Up and Older with Ruth.” In Reading Ruth: Contemporary Jewish Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail T. Reimer. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Vanessa L. Ochs is the author of Inventing Jewish Ritual (JPS), winner of a 2007 National Jewish Book Award. Her other books include Sarah Laughed, The Jewish Dream Book (with Elizabeth Ochs), The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices (edited with Irwin Kula), Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred, and Safe and Sound: Protecting Your Child In An Unpredictable World. For her writing, she was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her latest book is The Passover Haggadah: A Biography, part of the Princeton University Press “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.