What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?

They are filled with ethnic and religious objects--and everyday objects imbued with special meaning.

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Jewish-Signifying Objects

In a second category are objects that are not in and of themselves considered explicitly or uniquely Jewish-signifying objects that create the Jewishness of a home and point to it (for oneself and for others who enter the space). Nonetheless, they also function, in many Jewish homes, to embody, create, and express kedushah [holiness] by their actual presence, by a hidden presence of which one is consciously or subliminally aware, and also by the whole range of interactions to which such objects are subject or suggest and provoke.

They participate in the fulfillment of mitzvot, the commandments, or as Max Kaddushin would say, "Jewish value concepts." While the definition of this category might seem curious, the objects that constitute it are not. Consider books, some of which might be by Jews or about Judaism--but also all books in abundance, filling shelves, piled on floors, spilling off of tables, scattered in children's rooms.

Consider foods, some which are readily recognized as traditional Jewish foods for every day or holidays: bagels, chicken soup, the Hanukah latkes [potato pancakes], the Purim hamentaschen [triangular cookies], gefilte fish, and horseradish. But also included is all food in abundance, a pantry and refrigerator sufficiently overstocked to serve one who "cooks for an army" or one who urges those who dine to consume more: "Eat, eat. You eat like a bird."

Consider shrine-like displays of photographs, of children, of parents, of ancestors, of extended families assembled at what Jews call "affairs." L'dor va'dor, these things point from one generation to another: family matters, love matters, keeping connections matter, increasing and multiplying matter.

Ordinary Objects Transformed

In a third category, I place a whole range of material objects that could be found in any home, but whose meanings and functions shift within the context of a Jewish home. A dish is a dish, but in a Jewish home where kashrut (the dietary laws) is observed, the dishes of a certain color or pattern placed in a particular and separate cabinet become and remain milchig (milk, or dairy) dishes, and the dishes in another cabinet become and remain fleishig (meat). The telephone is a telephone, but when it's being used by a Jew who is checking on a sick friend who lives far away, it is a klei kodesh, a holy vessel used in the practice of bikkur holim, the commandment to connect to the sick.

All of the equipment one uses in house cleaning--cleansing powder, mop, Windex, Pinesol, vacuum cleaner--is just cleaning equipment. But in the Jewish home where Sabbath is observed by cleaning one's home beforehand, we have again klei kodesh, holy vessels that create and point to the Sabbath, tangibly, experientially, and sensuously.

In each case, we have objects that are endowed with meaning, memory, and sacred purposes--they are not changed, but they have the potential to become charged, so to speak.

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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.