- Hooked on FeelingsThe Story of My Jewish Pathologies
Jewish, feelings, illness, crafts
I grew up in a house filled with objects. Plants covered the passage from the kitchen to the wood-paneled den; spider ferns hung from dangling baskets. Above the fireplace, dusty old brass candlesticks and a mortar and pestle loomed over the room, encased in a patina of immigration stories. Enormous crochet afghans from the hooks of cousins and great-aunts covered the couch. My mother’s vibrant oil paintings were displayed on every wall that wasn’t already occupied by a bookshelf.
But then, there were the quotidian objects: the clutter. It went beyond the average sort, except in my room, where I kept the desk clear and everything at right angles. Piles of newspapers and what seemed like every copy of National Geographic ever written. Hosting any guests required preparation and maneuvering. It was like a Tetris game meets Hoarders, an Indiana Jones-esque excavation of the dining room table. Perhaps this is one of the ways I learned to love history. This New York Times is from a year ago. Remember when we thought Dukakis could win the election? It is certainly where I learned nostalgia. Dig down deep enough, and I’d find a two-year old service leaflet from our synagogue—remember that weekend? It was Stacey’s Bat Mitzvah!
My family did not possess objects. We were possessed by them.
I thought about these ancestral piles often as I researched Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis, my book about Jews, crafting, and resilience in contemporary America.1 From 2015 to 2020 I read books, newsletters, and blogs about objects; I entered people’s homes to touch and see mountains of their objects; I wrote on the road and then in my office on campus, surrounded by piles of paper; and I went over the final page proofs in my crowded guest-room-turned home office, under [End Page 5] a stay-at-home order, during a pandemic spring. I learned about other people’s heirlooms, and a few of my own.
As so often happens, the process of writing this book left me with more questions than answers, more stories than I could convey in one volume. I have learned that I am hooked on feelings, though I embrace the ones from my fingertips while resisting the more charged ones we also call “emotions.” In truth, of course, that’s a false binary. “The habits of the heart are also the haptics of the heart, the religious tactility of the body,” writes David Chidester.2 In my research and in my own history, rituals of mind are deeply enmeshed with rituals of the body. I fall into repetitive, even compulsive, habits of feeling in both senses of the word. Hands and hearts are both collections of muscles, clenching and releasing habitually along well-worn grooves of sensation and sentiment.
In this story, the habits and the haptics are one and the same.
“the whole world will go away if that happens”
Inheritances come with a mandate. In April 2017, I flew to Los Angeles for a week of interviews with members of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, a North American organization of Jewish crafters with some chapters that have met for over four decades. Gertrude, an octogenarian who prefers to sew by hand, sat in her sunny yellow living room, feeding me Passover treats and showing me her creations as her dog hovered protectively over us. Towards the end of the interview, she got to the heart of the matter: “It’s like a continuous, continuous thread,” she told me. “It’s a different way of leaving behind for the future generations the works of your hand, your heart, and your mind. To me, that’s what it is, you know. Because, look, I’m going to be 88 in a few months. I have all this for people to talk about, because they’ll be using it, they are using it now, they’re talking about it now, the pieces that I made for them.”
Like Gertrude’s words—and in part because of her...