- Jewish Objects and Jewish AffectsA Conversation
The following conversation is an edited version of a roundtable originally held at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in December 2020. Each of the four discussants have published new books that touch on the topics of this special issue of CrossCurrents. The books under discussion are:
• Jodi Eichler-Levine, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
• Rachel B. Gross, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice. New York: New York University Press, 2021.
• Laura A. Leibman, The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2020 [Winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, 2020].
• Laura S. Levitt, The Objects that Remain. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020.
What is your recent book about? In what context were you studying Jewish objects and affects? Why and how?
My new book, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis, tells the story of how contemporary Jews craft a “Judaism of feeling” through the creation of objects. It is the result of three years of participant observation, interviews, survey, and digital work. I talked primarily with women from all over the United States, with particular focus on the Pomegranate Guild.
My subject matter was immensely tactile. I got to see lots of objects in homes, at a convention, and as portrayed online. I started with the [End Page 82] people and their practices, which incorporated objects: I wanted to think about how the process and location of making art and craft were (or were not) part of Jewish life, and what those processes—and the objects in which they culminated—meant, particularly to Jewish women. I wanted to get at the lived religion, the literal texture of Jewish life in the United States through this focus.
In Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, I look at materials and institutions through which American Jews engage, promote, and teach nostalgia for turn-of-the-century Jewish immigration from Central and Eastern Europe to the United States. I find that nostalgia—a sentimental longing for Jewish communal origins that can’t be fulfilled—is both affect and practice, and I think that that feeling and that practice have become a prominent part of American Jewish practice since the 1970s and into the present day. I look at case studies of the materials and institutions of Jewish genealogists, historic synagogues that are used as museums, children’s books and dolls, and artisanal delis and other Jewish food entrepreneurs.
As I’ve learned from others, including those on this panel, American Jews have always used material culture to create communities in the present. I think the materials of nostalgia don’t just connect Jews to other Jews in the present, though that’s a large part of it. I think they help shape a sacred narrative about where American Jewish individuals, families, and communities come from and where they’re going. They provide sacred meaning that places individuals in relation to past, present, and future Jewish communities. Nostalgic materials invoke a community that includes both the living and the dead and that provides meaning in the present by telling stories about the past—two important features of religious practice.
I did this research by studying the materials Jews created—including but not limited to family history books, genealogy newsletters, historic synagogues and their spaces and artifacts, picture books and dolls, and delis and dishes. I looked at how they were discussed online, in online reviews and in conversations in Jewish newspapers and other forums. I conducted some short-term ethnographies in genealogical societies, historic synagogues, and delis. And I think the heart of my study was the interviews I conducted with genealogists, museum staff members, philanthropists, authors, illustrators, publishers, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs. [End Page 83]
My most recent book, The Art of the Jewish Family, uses five objects to create biographies of Jewish women...