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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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.

The Kitchen

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.

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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.