Do you have an item stored in an attic or tucked away in a box, an item which you consider to be useless, garish, and out of fashion, yet you are not able to put it in the trash and part with it forever? Why, or rather how, do objects exercise such power over us? With the help of words and numerous images, Jodi Eichler-Levine skillfully crafts an answer to this question in Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community.
Eichler-Levine has conducted interviews with and participant observation among women (and some men) who identify as Jewish and craft Jewish objects. These objects include matzah deckles, wimpels, prayer shawls, Passover towels, kippahs, quilts, and Pussyhats, among others. What all these various objects have in common is their ability to mediate between human minds and bodily sensations and to bond humans together across space and time. When looking at the completed crafted objects, Jewish women who made them can remember the feelings they experienced while making them. An embroidered pillowcase can remind a grandmother of the joy she felt when her grandson was born, a tallit-installation can remind a daughter of the pain she experienced when her parent passed away, and a blanket can remind a woman of the sadness that filled her body when she received a cancer diagnosis. Objects also hold memories of the physically absent family members and members of a larger Jewish community. Women who have made household and religious objects and passed them on from generation to generation are remembered through these objects when they are gone. Jewish men and women killed in mass shootings or Holocaust are kept alive in communal imagination through the making and display of such items as crochet and knitted Jewish hearts and green sweaters. To name and describe this function of objects, Eichler-Levine coins such helpful terms as “repositories of sentiment” (6) and “container[s] of emotions and memories” (85).
The argument that religious objects retain sentimental feelings and create strong human bonds will be familiar to any scholar of religious material culture. David Morgan (Visual Piety, University of California Press, 1998) and Robert Orsi (Thank You, St. Jude, Yale University Press, 1998) have argued that Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ painting and statues of St. Jude have allowed Protestant and Catholic practitioners to attach and continuously relive the sensory memories experienced in their presence and to form tight-knit religious communities. These are only two examples of the vast religious studies scholarship that has been productively drawing attention to the social and interconnected nature of objects, sensation and memory for the last two decades.
Eichler-Levine’s contribution to the field of religion and material culture lies in telling a particular and important story of how objects operate to create memories and communities in American Judaism. From Eichler-Levine’s skillful ethnographic writing, someone unfamiliar with Jewish tradition as practiced in the United States will learn a great deal about the particularity of objects, their significance, the feelings, emotions, and sensations attached to them, and the communities built with their help. For me, it was particularly interesting to learn about the emphasis Jewish women place on the commandment to rebuild the world, and to gain an understanding of how everyday craftsmanship helps them to fulfill this commandment. Furthermore, the descriptions of how the communal imagination of Jews in the United States is haunted by the horror of the Holocaust and racially motivated mass shootings, and of how Jewish women make an effort to physically restore (though not replace) the materiality that was lost through these violent events were especially helpful for re-emphasizing an important analytical point that distinct religious communities engage material objects differently and these differences matter. For Jewish people, objects did not simply serve as reminders, but also offered themselves as the means through which to do something materially and communally to heal, find hope, and create the world anew.
This is a well-written and carefully argued book. My main concern is that for a work on Judaism in the United States there was not enough discussion of the “American” context. Eichler-Levine briefly mentions that Jewish women she worked with participated in American capitalist culture and DIY culture. Nuancing whether these women followed the strand of Oprah Winfrey (see Kathryn Lofton, Oprah, University of California Press, 2011) or Gwyneth Paltrow’s (see Dana W. Logan, “Lean Closet,” JAAR, 2017) capitalist consumption would have been helpful. Additionally, it would have been worthwhile for the author to discuss how a number of these Jewish women have picked up American liberal feminist values that valorize agency as resistance, equate women’s ability to work outside the home and become a rabbi with empowerment, and see spending all their time raising children as an imposition on their selfhood (see Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety, Princeton University Press, 2005.) The book makes clearer the ways in which Jewish women’s craftsmanship is a deviation from, rather than a representative example of mainstream American culture. Setting this one concern aside, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is an insightful and compelling view into how with the help of objects American Jewish women make memories, craft resilience, and create community.
Elena Kravchenko is a lecturer in religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Date Of Review:
August 3, 2021
Jodi Eichler-Levine, Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University, is author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature.
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