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.) I was inspired by Vanessa Ochs, one of my colleagues at CLAL and a member of the University of Virginia faculty, who 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 tchotchkes. Wrote Vanessa:
In Judaism and, I imagine, most other faith traditions, the spiritual is material. 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. Things denote one’s belonging, one’s participation, possibly one’s convictions.
I was reminded of all this after hearing a Studio 360 piece on Joshua Glenn, co-creator of the Significant Objects project. Glenn doesn’t ask people to describe the meaningful objects in their lives; instead, he asks well-known writers to create back stories to objects he’s collected.
Nevetheless, it got me thinking about the Jewish stuff that’s been gathering in my office, and what these tchotchkes signify, if anything. Below is the first installment, with a promise (or perhaps threat) of more to come.
Sholem Aleichem Bobblehead
Larry Bush of Jewish Currents magazine, that redoubt of secular Jewish leftism, began selling these a few years back. The famous Yiddish writer walks along a cobble-stone street, flanked by two very different buildings: a Lower East Side tenement, and a little shack straight out of Anatevke, the setting of his Tevye the Milkman stories.
Just saying the words “Sholem Aleichem bobblehead” makes me smile. And unlike the David Wright bobblehead we got at a Mets game a few year ago, this one actually looks the person it is supposed to depict.
I love the idea of celebrating Yiddish literature with this goofily American collectible. Now if they only made a Moses action figure. Oh wait — they do.