Jews at Home: The Domes­ti­ca­tion of Iden­ti­ty, Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Series, Vol­ume Two

Simon J. Bron­ner, ed.
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
The title of this vol­ume, Jews at Home: The Domes­ti­ca­tion of Iden­ti­ty may sound a lit­tle off-putting to non-aca­d­e­mics. What is the domes­ti­ca­tion of iden­ti­ty? Don’t be fooled by the title. The anthol­o­gy is high­ly read­able and cap­ti­vat­ing. The con­cep­tu­al thread link­ing the fif­teen arti­cles is their empha­sis on how the Jew­ish fam­i­ly has shaped Jew­ish cul­tur­al life. The Jew­ish fam­i­ly over time has pro­vid­ed dias­po­ra Jews with an at-home­ness in exile,” an obser­va­tion made by Bron­ner in his inci­sive intro­duc­tion to this anthol­o­gy. The fam­i­ly is the ulti­mate domes­tic sphere, hence the title of the book.

This vol­ume is the sec­ond in the Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Series pub­lished by the Littman Library of Jew­ish Civ­i­liza­tion. The arti­cles are intrigu­ing and far-rang­ing in top­ic and geo­graph­ic area, includ­ing Jew­ish life in Argenti­na, Brazil, Europe, Lon­don, Israel, and the Unit­ed States. They serve to under­score that fre­quent­ly tak­en for grant­ed cul­tur­al acts and objects play a major role in sus­tain­ing the ethos of group. For exam­ple, a delight­ful arti­cle by Joel­lyn Wallen Zoll­man shows how the sis­ter­hood gift shop in the Unit­ed States in the mid-fifties served as a resource for shap­ing the Jew­ish home.

In the arti­cle From the Night­club to the Liv­ing Room: Gen­der, Eth­nic­i­ty and Upward Mobil­i­ty in the 1950’s Par­ty Records of Three Jew­ish Women Comics” Gio­vana P. Del Negro describes how three racy Jew­ish comics, Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Pat­sy Abbott, helped to rede­fine fam­i­ly life, gen­der, eth­nic­i­ty, class, and white­ness” in the 1950’s for both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish audi­ences. Their earthy, shtetl” humor was used to rail against soci­etal mores that told them to be qui­et, well-behaved, and sex­u­al­ly pas­sive.” These three bawdy female Yid­dish style enter­tain­ers were ear­ly pio­neers of com­e­dy rou­tines and the women’s move­ment.

Shalom Sabar in his engag­ing study, From Sacred Sym­bol to Key Ring: Ham­sa in Jew­ish and Israeli Soci­eties,” traces the ori­gin and pro­lif­er­a­tion of the ham­sa sold in all Juda­ic shops, and incor­po­rat­ed in many Jew­ish folk arts and worn by Jews and non-Jews alike. The read­er will dis­cov­er just how the ubiq­ui­tous ham­sa has devel­oped into a cul­tur­al icon reflect­ing the meld­ing of cul­tur­al norms of the Jews from Islam­ic coun­tries and those of the Ashke­naz­im dat­ing back to the 1800’s. The arti­cle is filled with delight­ful pho­tographs of dif­fer­ent types of Ham­sas used in a vari­ety of set­tings, includ­ing as wed­ding sou­venirs and car amulets, in syn­a­gogues and in homes.

Still anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle is 770 East­ern Park­way: The Rebbe’s Home as Icon” by Gabrielle A. Berlinger. Rebbe Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, the sev­enth leader of the Chabad Lubav­itch Hasidim, lived at 770 East­ern Park­way in Crown Heights, Brook­lyn. The Rebbe” died in 1994 at the age of 92 with no appar­ent heir. A cor­ner­stone of the Rebbe’s pol­i­cy was to send shlichim (emis­saries) out from Crown Heights all over the world to deep­en Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice. Over 100,000 Jews were reset­tled, with the Rebbe’s bless­ing” accord­ing to Berlinger. The rev­er­ence for The Rebbe was so great that the Chabad move­ment built eleven archi­tec­tur­al repli­cas of his 770 home. An iden­ti­cal ver­sion of 770 was built in Tel Aviv and the oth­er ten copies are found in Haifa, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty in New Jer­sey, Buenos Aires, Argenti­na, Milan, Italy, Mel­bourne Aus­tralia, Mon­tréal Cana­da and two in Los Ange­les. Pho­tos in the arti­cle serve to illus­trate their sim­i­lar­i­ty to 770. Berlinger makes the astute obser­va­tion that in effect, the 770 edi­fice has become a brand,” almost a new Jerusalem,” for the glob­al­ized Chabad move­ment and serves to pro­vide cohe­sion, and a spir­i­tu­al home to the high­ly dis­persed Lubav­itch shlichim.

The oth­er arti­cles in this anthol­o­gy are equal­ly engag­ing. Read­ers who rel­ish whim­sy with their schol­ar­ly analy­sis will espe­cial­ly delight in read­ing this vol­ume. It is also heart­en­ing to see that the schol­ar­ly study of Jew­ish cul­tur­al life has joined the ranks of cul­tur­al stud­ies, an area of bur­geon­ing impor­tance in uni­ver­si­ties all over the world. Archival pho­tographs, biogra­phies of con­trib­u­tors, end­notes, index, illustrations.
Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions