Touring a Jewish Home

From ritual items to artwork to the contents of a refrigerator, Judaism is evident throughout a Jewish home.

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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."

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Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and associate professor of Religious Studies.