Mate­r­i­al Cul­ture and Jew­ish Thought in America

Ken Koltun-Fromm
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
Ken Koltun-Fromm’s study of select­ed key fig­ures and core themes in mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ish reli­gion, psy­chol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture, and pop­u­lar cul­ture opens with a provoca­tive claim: Amer­i­can Jews…constructed their selves in and through mate­r­i­al objects.” In a series of often abstract, aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­ry-infused close read­ings, Koltun-Fromm seeks to enlarge, indeed refo­cus our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture by high­light­ing what he calls the per­for­ma­tive” in Amer­i­can Jew­ish expres­sion, a cul­tur­al mode which reveals a com­plex and ambigu­ous act of iden­ti­ty.” Rang­ing wide­ly, cast­ing a fair­ly eclec­tic net, from famous rab­bi-intel­lec­tu­als like Morde­cai Kaplan (whose man­u­script jour­nals lit­er­al­ly inscribe the mate­r­i­al,” and thus are sym­bol­ic of Kaplan’s archival” Jew­ish self”), Joseph Soloveitchik, Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, to assort­ed lit­er­ary fig­ures like Anzia Yezier­s­ka, Philip Roth, Cyn­thia Ozick, and Bernard Mala­mud as well as a read­ing of the famous film vari­a­tions of The Jazz Singer,” Koltun- Fromm threads his argu­ment about the explana­to­ry pow­er of the mate­r­i­al” as key word for sit­u­at­ing a rich por­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish expres­sive cul­ture. The chal­lenge, ulti­mate­ly the dif­fi­cul­ty, in absorb­ing Koltun- Fromm’s ambi­tious study is the rel­a­tive­ly abstract meaning(s) he ascribes to the idea of mate­r­i­al cul­ture” itself. 

 Giv­en the author’s high-lev­el, often abstract analy­ses, Mate­r­i­al Cul­ture and Jew­ish Thought in Amer­i­ca will most like­ly be of inter­est only to aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ences. That said, schol­ars of lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture will gain lim­it­ed ben­e­fit from Koltun- Fromm’s brief read­ings of lit­er­ary fig­ures, or his overview of the var­i­ous iter­a­tions of The Jazz Singer” (incor­rect­ly, he calls Sam­son Raphaelson’s orig­i­nal 1922 short sto­ry The Day of Atone­ment” a play; Raphael­son did write a play called The Jazz Singer in 1925, before the famous 1927 Jol­son movie), or the iconog­ra­phy of Lilith mag­a­zine cov­ers. Per­haps Koltun-Fromm’s most res­o­nant, sug­ges­tive read­ing is of Soloveichik’s par­tic­u­lar way of imag­in­ing the wan­der­ing Jew­ish self in the city, where urban space as a site of reli­gious trans­for­ma­tion” can become the trans­for­ma­tive site of the urban holy.” For me, this insight imme­di­ate­ly con­jures the young hero of Hen­ry Roth’s Call I t Sleep (1934), along with oth­er new world walk­ers in the city, in search of America’s redemp­tive promise. In this respect, Mate­r­i­al Cul­ture and Jew­ish Thought in Amer­i­ca invites us to re-exam­ine a range of reli­gious-philo­soph­i­cal sources, for which we should be grateful.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions