Touring a Jewish Home

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.