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Objects of Study

Examining our material and visual culture

What do we talk about when we talk about things? Three volumes published this year offer compelling evidence that the study of objects is undergoing something of a renaissance within Jewish studies. Recent scholarship has sought to replace the centrality of text and language with the material world of things and landscapes. For Jewish studies, this move away from text-based scholarship to thing-based study is quite momentous.

Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture (Rose-Carol Washton Long, Matthew Baigel and Milly Heyd, eds., New England UP, $55) is the most straightforwardly art-historical of these volumes, offering an enlightening set of essays about the various and often vexing ways in which Jewish artists participated in the broad currents of visual modernism. Moving from essays addressing the relation between Antisemitism and the writing of art history to individual figures such as Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara (ne Shmuel Rosenstock), the volume concludes with an essay describing how postwar architecture has been deeply influenced by the Shoah. One need only think of the international preeminence of such Jewish architects as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind to get a sense of how thoroughly enmeshed architectural practice and Jewish practitioners have become in recent years.

Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America by Ken Kolton-Fromm (Indiana, $26.95) takes a relatively wellknown cast of characters (Mordechai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heshel, Joseph Solovetchik and fiction writers such as Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick) and reads them in a new light — actually, in a new “shadow,” one cast by material objects. Thinking beyond a narrow definition of text, and the normative notion of the Jews as “the people of the book,” this volume challenges readers to contemplate the tangible — and by now undeniable — changes wrought by American materialism on Jewish religious beliefs and practice. A simple example may be found in the plethora of Hanukkah-related tchatchkes one now sees in the neighborhood Walgreens, alongside the Halloween and Christmas displays. Koltun-Fromm’s book strays out of the confines of “thought” per se into the domain of popular culture. He reads prose and fiction, as well as the covers of Lilith magazine, as evidence of how material objects shape Jewish identity in the United States, and how these objects are expressions of identity. The question of an American Jewish “material heritage” posed at the end of Koltun-Fromm’s book points to the increasingly important role of the home in American Jewish life.

Ideas about home are at the center of another fascinating collection of essays, Jews at Home: The Domestication of Identity (Littman, $26.95). Simon J. Bronner’s finely edited volume moves from a general consideration of the difference between house and home (bayit) in Jewish cultures to site-specific meditations on the sukkah, the synagogue gift shop and more recent incarnations of public and private space on the Jewish blogosphere. An investigation of how the Crown Heights home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was meticulously replicated as “Chabad houses” in locations such as Milan, Montreal and Melbourne offers a postmodern twist on the portability of holy space that has long characterized Jewish cultures — for example the ark in desert, or the sukkah as it has evolved in diasporic Jewish practice. The collection as a whole demonstrates how the reinvention of ritual is inevitably embedded in the material world, and as such is subject to the whims and vagaries of this everchanging world.

Within the academy, this turn away from textuality and history to the more material dimensions of space and the physical world is signified in the shift from Judaic studies to Jewish studies, with the latter term signifying a domain of study reaching beyond the normative confines of religious institutions and traditional texts. Certainly the increasingly fragmented and ersatz yet dazzling creativity that constitutes the vibrant world of American Jewish practice — religious and secular alike — chafes against the confines of the text as a suitable container. But, the old question remains: Is it sustainable? What kind of culture will this “recycling” of Jewish ritual — be it the mikveh, the eruv or the siddur — bring forth, and will it be recognizable as “Jewish”? Much of this imaginative work takes place on websites like sabbathmanifesto.com and The Jew and the Carrot. Even while this cultural turn towards the virtual world is firmly underway, it’s nice to be reminded how much material things can matter too. 

Barbara Mann is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space.