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Ask most Jews about their strongest Jewish memories, and they will speak of Passover Seders at their grandparents’ house, lighting Chanukah candles with their parents, or eating Shabbat and holiday meals with their families. Though the importance of synagogues and other Jewish institutions cannot be minimized, the home remains the place where most people first encounter Jewish ritual, and where much of Jewish life takes place.
It is perhaps a function of the Diaspora experience that the home has assumed a central role in Jewish religious life. Lacking, for most of Jewish history, a national homeland, Jews have instead focused on creating holy space within their own personal dwellings.
A Jewish home can be identified both by the objects in the home and by what takes place there. While individual families differ in their religious practice and Jewish interests, certain elements link Jewish homes to one another–and to other Jewish homes throughout history. One prominent symbol is the mezuzah, a box-encased scroll that serves as a literal acting out of the biblical command to “write these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 11:20). Other examples include: ritual items–such as candlesticks, kiddush cups (with which to say the blessing on wine sanctifying Shabbat and holidays), and special plates for the challah loaves–and books on Jewish subjects or by Jewish authors. These objects help outsiders identify the house as Jewish and remind the inhabitants of the house of the centrality of Judaism in their home life.
The Jewish Kitchen
Without question, the most important room in a Jewish home is the kitchen. The kitchen is the place where preparation for holiday and Shabbat meals takes place, and it is where the family gathers before, after, and in between these meals. The centrality of the kitchen for Jewish family life is reflected in a passage in Miriam’s Kitchen, in which memoirist Elizabeth Ehrlich reminisces about her grandmother’s kitchen:
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