Small things considered

Small things considered

If my Sholem Aleichem bobblehead could talk, what would he say? The six-inch model of the great Yiddish writer sits on the windowsill in my office, not far from my JNF tzedaka box, my Rutgers Hillel Frisbee, and a framed quote from Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (more on that in a bit).

I ordered the bobblehead from Jewish Currents magazine partly because I love Jewish kitsch, and partly because it makes me happy to say the words “Sholem Aleichem bobblehead.”

Of course, it’s the rare object or souvenir that doesn’t say something about its owner. I suppose I keep the great humorist and stylist near my keyboard as a talisman, the way Schroeder parks a bust of Beethoven on his toy piano. I don’t read Yiddish, but I appreciate the genius of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and “Railroad” stories. The bobblehead is also a memorial object, I suppose, a mini-monument to the immigrant ferment and progressive secular Judaism that has faded since the last century.

That’s a lot to put on a toy, but I wouldn’t be the first to invest a lot of meaning in everyday objects. When I worked for CLAL, Vanessa Ochs introduced me to the discipline of “material culture” — stuff, essentially, and what it says about its owners and collectors. In an essay, What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?, Vanessa inventoried the home of a “past president of a Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey,” and tallied her various objets d’art and tchotchkes, from the framed Israeli art on her walls to the jars of borscht in her pantry. “In Judaism and, I imagine, most other faith traditions, the spiritual is material,” wrote Vanessa, a member of the University of Virginia faculty. “Things denote one’s belonging, one’s participation, possibly one’s convictions.”

When I was at the Forward we started a feature about people’s various Jewish objects — little essays in which writers described their favorite Jewish knick-knacks and what they meant to them. (This was a few years before The New York Times Style section began its similar “Possessed” column.) We also brought in as a columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University. Jenna has made a career of studying Jewish clothing, objects, and kitsch, reminding us that “the stuff of history — Jewish history, most especially — comes in all manner of containers: elaborately illuminated manuscripts preserved in their entirety and hastily scribbled ‘to do’ lists; lofty Torah arks and humble calendar art; fine silver and junk.”

My office has more junk than fine silver. But each object tells a story. I got my coin bank in the shape of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick after giving a speech there; I think I got a laugh when I said, “But it’s empty!” I thought the JNF box was just an example of iconic Judaica until just a few weeks ago, when some bloggers noticed that the map of Israel on its side makes no distinction between Israel proper and the West Bank (not unlike a Palestinian textbook). Suddenly, the “little blue box” became a political argument.

My most cherished object is a marble paperweight commemorating the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Once sold by The New York Times, it features an engraved replica of the front page from March 27, 1979, showing Sadat, Begin, and Carter in a happy handshake. It celebrates another, more private reconciliation as well: It was a gift from my dad. Soon after college I started becoming more observant, spent long stretches in Israel, and then went into Jewish journalism as a profession. I think these moves baffled my dad, who is proudly Jewish but objects to the way religion often divides people. When he gave me the paperweight a few years later, I felt he was acknowledging my career choices and letting me know that he appreciated what Israel and the synagogue meant to me.

Sure, you can overdo this deep analysis of stuff; sometimes a shofar is just a shofar. But the things Jews touch, make, cook, build, and wear can often be as significant as the ideas they write about, pray for, argue over, and meditate on. Again, Vanessa Ochs: “Without things, in all their thingness, there is no Passover, only an idea of Passover; and a faint and fuzzy idea it would be, like honor, loyalty, and remorse — like, perhaps, God, and, more surely, monotheism.”

That’s where the Irving Howe quote comes in. In writing about The Yiddish Daily Forward in its heyday, Howe wrote, “The single greatest journalistic quality of the Forward was the sustained curiosity it brought to the life of its own people.” It wanted to know if kids were taking piano lessons, how people were making a living, what women were wearing as they climbed the social ladder. “Nothing seemed too mundane for the Forward staff,” wrote Howe.

Sitting on my shelf in a gold frame, that passage reminds me of an essential truth: When it comes to the stories we tell about ourselves and others, stuff matters.

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