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2009-2010 The Culture of Jewish Objects

What makes an object Jewish? The question invites other questions, about the significance of objects within Jewish culture and whether one can speak of a culture of Jewish objects. Jews have obviously used diverse objects throughout their long history and some of these have been endowed with specifically Jewish significance. Ritual objects, for example, associated with Jewish religious practices immediately come to mind. Sabbath observance, with its candle holders, Kiddush cup, challah plate, and spice box just to name familiar objects, involves a range of Jewish artifacts that simultaneously expand on and deviate from sacred meaning associated with synagogues or the ancient Temples. But what about other, more mundane, objects that are integral to Jewish life yet not associated with sacred time or space? How does one think about buildings and decorations, book covers and design, kitchen structures and cooking utensils, clothing and jewelry? In 2009-2010 the Frankel Institute theme will examine the construction of Jewish objects. Engaging current developments in the field of Material Culture, we wish to study the purpose, use, and aesthetics of Jewish “things,” as well as the ways they have been embraced and contested throughout history. In focusing on the culture of Jewish objects, the Institute will explore relationships among the physical, visual, spiritual, and textual over a broad span of time and place.

The artifacts of Judaism—physical objects used over centuries within Jewish families and communities—have sometimes been considered to be important only insofar as they fostered religious aims. Since at least the early days of the Renaissance, however, the physical realm has attracted the attention of scholars seeking to challenge this view of Jewish physicality. Examinations of biblical and rabbinic sources, no less than the theoretical considerations of Marxism, structuralism, and semiotics have contributed to a robust multidisciplinary exploration of the material cultures of Jews. Through such diverse fields as anthropology, archaeology, art history, architecture, museum studies, history, literature, sociology, and politics, scholars have collected, documented, and analyzed Jewish objects and the perceptions associated with them.

The Frankel Institute invites scholars to build upon this framework to explore webs of meaning attached to Jewish objects and woven by families and communities in which Jews live. What can be learned about Jewish culture from relationships of people to the physical realm? What is the relationship between tangible things and their textual and folkloristic presentations? What happens when interpretations of objects are contested? How do Jews borrow objects, modify them, and incorporate them into Jewish life? What happens when physical structures are abandoned—synagogues and Jewish communal buildings, for example, in poor urban neighborhoods—or when objects are stolen? What impact do artists and craftsmen and builders exert on objects through their role in fashioning them? How does gender influence the culture of Jewish objects?

The theme of the culture of Jewish objects invites artists working in any medium and scholars from any discipline or historical period to pursue their work at the University of Michigan in a stimulating, collaborative environment. Exploring the interaction between Jews and their surroundings, between physical artifacts and identity, between things and their many meanings, will contribute to new interpretations of Jewish culture.

The 2009-10 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "The Culture of Jewish Objects".


Michal Artzy
University of Haifa
"Coastal Canaanite Influence on Israelite Cult"

Leora Auslander
University of Chicago
"Strangers at Home: Jewish Parisians and Berliners in the Twentieth Century"

Shlomo Berger
University of Amsterdam
"The Construction of a Cultural Artifact: Early Modern Yiddish Books and the Materializing of Text"

J. P. Dessel
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
"In Search of Biblical Elders: Public Space and Rural Elites in Pre-Monarchic Israel"

Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig
Tel-Aviv University
"Jewish Life in Ashkenaz in the Early Modern Period: Proposing a Reconstruction"

Judith Goldstein
Vassar College
"Jews and Rosaries: Making Intercultural Objects in Contested Spaces"

Oren Gutfeld
University of Michigan
"Jewish Material Culture in the Judean Shephelah during the Second Temple Period: Beit Loya as a Case Study"

Alexandre Kedar
University of Haifa
"The Judaization of the Israeli Land Regime: 1948-2008"

Michal Kravel-Tovi
Hebrew University
"Materializing the New Jewish Self: Material Culture in the Jewish Conversion Process"

Rachel Rafael Neis
University of Michigan
"Ancient Jewish Visual Culture"

Vanessa Ochs
University of Virginia
"Jewish Object Lessons"

Paul Reitter
Ohio State University
"Clothes Make the German: Jewish Acculturation and the Practice of Everyday Life in Fin-de-Siècle Central Europe"

Josefina Rodriguez-Arribas
Warburg Institute & University of London
"Toward a Cultural History of the Astrolabe in Jewish Cultures"

Jason von Ehrenkrook
University of Michigan
"Jewish Statues: How Jews 'Used' Free-standing Sculpture in Greco-Roman Antiquity"

Chava Weissler
Lehigh University
"Spirituality and Art in the Jewish Renewal Movement"

Oded Zehavi
University of Haifa
"T'ka Beshofar (Sound the Great Shofar); the Unanswered Cry of the Shofar"