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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Such things in this category facilitate, instigate, or suggest Jewish ways of being, create and enforce Jewish identities, and serve as reminders that one's home is Jewish.

One informant has described such objects as the boundary-keepers she sets up in order to distinguish and protect the Jewish identity of her home from the largely non-Jewish world in which her family lives. One could just as easily say that it is not this informant who is setting up the objects to create boundaries, but the objects themselves that create a boundaried world in which my informant lives.

In Jewish-American homes, the most familiar and visible objects in this category might include a mezuzah [parchment and case hung on doorways], Hanukkah decorations, Sabbath candle sticks that are displayed and used, a kiddush wine cup (often silver), a prayer book, a Bible, and other ancient sacred Jewish texts, a Jewish calendar (distributed by a synagogue, kosher butcher, or Jewish funeral parlor), a drawer of yarmulkes harvested from various celebrations, a Hanukkah menorah, artwork depicting Jerusalem, displays of New Years, Hanukkah, and Passover greeting cards that change with the season, sentimental or nostalgic artistic images of serene shtetl mothers in scarves lighting Sabbath candles or bearded old rabbis worshipping and studying in destroyed European villages, tzedakah [charity] coin boxes designated for some Jewish cause or charity, kosher wines, loaves of challah, the boxes of matzah.

And just about anything with Hebrew letters written on it: from an illuminated ketubah (wedding contract) and Hebrew letters in primary colors magneted onto a refrigerator to a red-and-white can of Israeli Coca-Cola, brought back as a souvenir from an El Al flight to Israel.

Things that are signs, props, and catalysts enter one's home in a variety of ways: as purchases, souvenirs, gifts (from relatives, friends, and the Jewish community), inheritances, hand-me-downs. Sometimes they are quietly "borrowed" from synagogues, in a kind of surreptitious lifetime loan. Sometimes they are acquired once in a lifetime, like a pair of silver candle sticks; sometimes they are reacquired annually and consumed or used up, like Hanukkah candles or a Jewish calendar; and sometimes they are acquired annually, and after they have surpassed their initial intended use, they are saved and transformed. I am thinking of etrogs (citrons used on the Sukkot festival) turned into pomanders (to be smelled at the end of the Sabbath in the Havdallah ceremony) and pieces of afikoman (the matzoh that is hidden and then found at the Passover seder) hung over doors as amulets to increase one's blessing.

This first category embraces a subset of objects whose very absence or prohibition from use at specific times points loudly, articulately, and evidently to the Jewishness of the space. Absent (or typically absent) are specifically "other" objects such as Christmas trees, wreaths, colored lights, and wicker baskets of painted eggs and chocolate bunnies, or bacon and its smell. Prohibited, and hence placed out of sight or otherwise rendered out-of-commission in particular times and places, are in some Jewish homes: cars, money, and fire on Sabbath; bread and flour on Passover; mirrors and leather shoes in the mourner's house.

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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.