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Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America

Ken Koltun-Fromm

Publication Year: 2010

How Jews think about and work with objects is the subject of this fascinating study of the interplay between material culture and Jewish thought. Ken Koltun-Fromm draws from philosophy, cultural studies, literature, psychology, film, and photography to portray the vibrancy and richness of Jewish practice in America. His analyses of Mordecai Kaplan's obsession with journal writing, Joseph Soloveitchik's urban religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel's fascination with objects in The Sabbath, and material identity in the works of Anzia Yezierska, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, as well as Jewish images on the covers of Lilith magazine and in the Jazz Singer films, offer a groundbreaking approach to an understanding of modern Jewish thought and its relation to American culture.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. ix-xiv

I enjoy telling my friends that finally, after a rather long and circuitous search, I have found my authorial voice in this book. But that voice has been deeply inflected by the far more melodious tones of friends, family, colleagues, and students. My voice, as I have come to understand it, resonates with those whom I admire and trust. It echoes, but also travels...

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Introduction: Material Culture and Jewish Identity in America

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pp. 1-12

On a train bound for Schenectady in December 1928, Mordecai Kaplan continued his obsessive journal writing, this time in the third-person. He chides himself for turning to “his latest fad,” once again postponing a harder look at “the metaphysical problem which he set before himself.” As Kaplan reflects on his “weakness for formulas” and the “universe of ...

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1 The Material Self: Mordecai Kaplan and the Art of Writing

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pp. 13-52

Mordecai Kaplan’s diaries from 1913 to 1934 offer a window onto a tormented and lonely Jewish thinker. As a pioneering theologian, sociologist, and teacher of American Judaism in the twentieth century, Kaplan stood as a towering figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (1909–1963), where he worked for a good deal of his very long ...

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2 The Material Past: Edward Bernays, Joshua Liebman, and Erich Fromm

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pp. 53-107

Sigmund Freud’s height of popularity in America surfaced at two critical moments: after the war that should have ended all wars, together with the subsequent Roaring Twenties, and with the aftermath of the Second World War and the resultant triumphalism that swept America. In the 1920s and 1940s, Freud’s theories of the self and society permeated ...

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3 Material Place: Joseph Soloveitchik and the Urban Holy

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pp. 108-140

In the previous two chapters, I located material Jewish identity in America within two broad thematic rubrics: the material self and the material past. Though each touches upon specific concerns and tensions for Jews in America, both reveal how material culture lies at the heart of Jewish thought. For Kaplan, it arises in the journal as material archive—a claim ...

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4 Material Presence: Abraham Joshua Heschel and The Sabbath

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pp. 141-179

A reading of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (1951) typically goes like this: in this poetic and lyrical text, Heschel carves out holiness in the experiential moments of time amid the materialism of physical space. The Sabbath is Judaism’s response to the excess of mass media, marketing, capitalism, and the enslavement to material possessions. The ...

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5 The Material Narrative: Yezierska, Roth, Ozick, Malamud

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pp. 180-224

Things entrance, seduce, and for some, even harm selves with higher callings. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s denials of material presence invoked this very allure and power. Yet a deep ambivalence lurked within Heschel’s works, for material things could both undermine and enable holiness in time. The Jewish narratives discussed in this chapter evince ...

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6 The Material Gaze: American Jewish Identity and Heritage Production

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pp. 225-269

When Philip Roth published his “Imagining Jews” in The New York Review of Books in 1974,1 he set out to defend his “shooting off his mouth about shooting off his semen”2 that made Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) such a robust, and to many, a crude book by a Jewish author. The fact that a Jew like Portnoy could be so enthralled to the passions, and sexual ones ...

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Conclusion: American or Jewish Material Identity?

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pp. 270-278

A nagging question has continued to haunt these chapters, one that I have refused to engage until now: in what sense is material Jewish identity in America a specifically Jewish or American expression? More than one colleague has put this challenge to my work, and I have deflected the issue ever so cautiously. There are indeed many ways to think of Jewish ...


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pp. 279-314


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pp. 315-328


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pp. 329-343

E-ISBN-13: 9780253004161
E-ISBN-10: 0253004160
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253354549

Page Count: 358
Illustrations: 11 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 613205848
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Cultural assimilation -- United States.
  • United States -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
  • Jews -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • Judaism -- United States.
  • Jews -- United States -- Identity.
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