In the following article, the author visits a typical American-Jewish home to explore the role that objects play in creating a Jewish home and living a Jewish life. Though the author’s host, Susan–referred to as the “informant”–believes she is not “very” Jewish or not “Jewish enough,” the author shows the richness of Susan’s Jewish life as it is evidenced in her home. Excerpted with the permission of the author from a longer essay that appeared in the journal Cross Currents. To read the extended version, click here.
My informant, Susan, is a past president of a Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey and 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 chodesh (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.
Jewish Items All Around
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? 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.”
Despite Susan’s protest that she is not sufficiently Jewish by her own standards, she takes me on a detailed tour of the profoundly, explicitly Jewish home that she has made and that makes her.
Some of Susan’s tzedakah boxes.
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.
Inside the house, there is what Susan calls “Jewish stuff” everywhere. “I love tzedakah (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.
“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.”
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 [from Fiddler on the Roof] in villages like Anatevka, lions of Judah, doves of peace, stars of David.
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.”
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 [Sabbath] 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.”
“Converting” Objects to Judaism
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, 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 Appetit (dog-eared on pages for latkes and flourless Passover tortes). More prints of an old synagogue in Prague, images of Jewish people floating, a cross between Kabbalah and Chagall. 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 25 years ago, framed photographs of Susan as chair of the United Jewish Appeal women’s division, bubbe [grandmother]and zayde [grandfather] 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 tzedakah boxes.
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.
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 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.
The Home’s Kashrut Policy
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.”
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: BUB-ee, Origin: Yiddish, grandmother.
Pronounced: kah-bah-LAH, sometimes kuh-BAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish mysticism.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.
Pronounced: ZAY-dee, Origin: Yiddish, grandfather.