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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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.

In Judaism and, I imagine, most other faith traditions, the spiritual is material. Without things, in all their thingness, there is no Passover, only an idea of Passover; and a faint and fuzzy idea it would be, like honor, loyalty, and remorse--like, perhaps, God, and more surely, monotheism. Things denote one's belonging, one's participation, possibly one's convictions.

Listen to Jews interrogate each other about the intensity of their commitment and connection to certain fundamental indicators of conscious, intentionally lived Jewish life. They do not typically ask, deuteronomically: "Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?" They will not ask, decalogically: "Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?"

essence of a jewish homeRather, they inquire about the materiality of lived-out beliefs and habits of conviction: "On the Sabbath, do you drive your car? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks?"

Material Culture in the Jewish Home

Where are most of these things that point toward and create Jewish life and identity but in the home? Within Jewish homes, things, people, and even times of day and seasons of the year and of life interact in a fluid process, through which things make the home Jewish, by which things are animated by Jewish life and absorbed by it in specifically Jewish ways.

In my anthropological research on Jewish-American material culture in homes, I have been attending to how my human informants, the creators and keepers of Jewish homes (more often women than men, but not always), reflect upon how things make their homes Jewish, and how things found in the home facilitate Jewish living and create, maintain, and transmit Jewish identities.

I have been struck over and again: If informants do not come from Orthodox homes, and if they are not rabbis, they routinely express anxiety that I may have come to the wrong place and am wasting my time. Despite an impressive inventory we have just taken together in a home of over a thousand Jewish things, some are bound to claim that their Jewish home is still not "Jewish enough" or "really Jewish."

Three categories of objects help me to understand and experience what I am seeing.

Articulate Objects

First, certain standard markers serve as unambiguous "signs" or "indications" that a Jewish home has been intentionally constructed, and is being continually constructed--by the objects themselves and by a range of interactions people have with these objects. Call this first category of objects: articulate, revelatory, self-evident, and unambiguous. One could call objects in this category: signs which say "a Jew lives here"; props which say, "I am needed in Jewish life"; or catalysts which say, "my very presence creates Jewish ways of being and doing." Often they are all three: signs, props, and catalysts.

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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.