- Introduction:Jewish American Material Culture
A family of six sits around a table ready to start a festive meal. Bubbe and Zayde are there. The cloth is white, the plates are blue, and the family has prepared perfectly formed latkes and challah to start the meal. A silver Hanukiah with candles ablaze stands close—but not too close—to the carefully wrapped gifts. With kippot on their heads, Zayde holds a siddur and Abba a Kiddush cup. A young boy dances in his chair, clasping a dreidel. Bubbe holds a gift. Ima flits between the festivities and the kitchen, spoon in hand. Music plays in the background, and the family's dog waits poised by the refrigerator.
This family might seem like many other Jewish families across America during the festival of Hanukkah, if not for the fact that the family members are so incredibly short and set in their ways. In fact, all of the family members are disturbingly puny—barely two inches tall, to be exact—and they are made of a hard, molded plastic. In an attempt to avoid choking hazards to the children who will play with them, they are bonded to their accessories. Even if you wanted to free Ima from her role as chef, you couldn't, as the spoon follows her wherever she goes. You may have met this family before: they are the "Little People Hanukkah Play Set" made by Fisher Price in an attempt to diversify the company's holiday offerings and capture a Jewish market in the first decade of the twenty-first century.1 Apparently, the play set was not a commercial success: for the last few years, all of the Fisher Price holiday-themed "Little People" have been observing Christian or solidly American holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Jewish "Little People" live on only on eBay, in collectors' shops, and on amazon.com at collector's prices. Jewish "Little People" may embody a host of stereotypes, but they aren't cheap.
As a type of material culture made explicitly for Jews and depicting Jews performing rites of Judaism as an embodied religion, the Jewish "Little People" set represents the various ways in which American Jewish identity is performed through things. In this special issue of American Jewish History on material culture, the authors explore the ways in which a wide range of everyday objects can enhance our understanding of American Jewish culture and religion. In this introduction to [End Page 115] this special issue, Jewish "Little People" serve as a concrete example of what might be called "material Judaism"—that is, the use of objects of everyday life in Judaism and to create Jewish identity. By exploring things made and used for and by American Jews, scholars in this issue look at how religion is embedded in culture and how a cultural sense of Jewishness has often come to replace a text-centered understanding of Jewish identity.
The "Little People Hanukkah Play Set" exemplifies the variety of ways in which objects can embody what it means to be Jewish in American life. In the Fisher Price set, Jewishness is what one wears, eats, plays, and does as much as what one reads. The boy in the set learns about Hanukkah by playing dreidel, but real Jewish children also learn about Judaism by playing with the Fisher Price set and enacting Jewish holidays in their play. Even the plastic siddur is non-textual. As Pierre Bourdieu would eagerly note, Zayde's book reminds us that all books are physical objects read in material contexts. If it is "with the body that people read the 'book' from which they learn their vision of the world,"2 this family's understanding of Judaism is controlled by and channeled through the molded plastic body of Zayde—or, as one eBay seller eloquently calls him, "Fisher Price Little People JEWISH HANUKKAH GRANDPA MAN TORAH BOOK FOR HOLIDAY."
Just as we might want to know who wrote a will or a novel, the context in which objects are created adds to our sense of their social function. Knowing who gave Zayde the only book...