Why Use Material Culture in Your Classes?

In Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism, I argue that material culture can help us better understand the variety of religious expression of early American Jews.  Material culture (the objects of everyday life) helps draw our gaze away from the elite writings of men, and towards the physical spaces and objects used by the less literate and least visible members of their community, such as women, children and Judeo-Africans.  By thinking about early American Jews as a “people of the body” as well as a “people of the book,” we also recognize the importance of ritual practice in Judaism, as opposed to the centrality of faith for Christianity.


Hanukiah (18th Century) from Amsterdam in the back right room of the Gomez Mill House. Photo by Laura Leibman (Jewish Atlantic World Database)

Using material culture in the classroom can also have several benefits for our students:

  1. Visual: For visual thinkers, material objects may help ground students’ understanding of early American life
  2. Voices: Material culture provides access to underrepresented “voices” in Jewish American history
  3. Facilitate comparisons: By comparing objects used or made by early American Jews to objects used or made by either non-Jews in the same ports, Jews in other ports, or later American Jews, students can better understand what made early American Jewish life distinctive and how cultures are shaped and transformed over time.
  4. Reality vs. Ideal: By comparing material culture to written documents students can access how the reality of lives compared to the “ideal” set forth in religious tracts.
  5. Seriation Studies: Because certain types of material culture (such as gravestones) are available for a large percent of an entire community, they provide a way to track changes in a community over time.
  6. Family History and Migration: Material culture provides a unique access point into family histories, since students can trace families moved throughout the diaspora and how they adapted to local practice.
  7. Doing History: objects are a useful way to engage students actively in the process of how historians and scholars of cultural studies create narratives. By investigating material culture, students can learn how to tell their own stories about historical change.

So What is Material Culture?

Although I have summarized material culture as “the objects of everyday life,” Thomas Schlereth suggests that we might think of material culture as

the totality of artifacts in a culture, the vast universe of objects used by humankind to cope with the physical world, to facilitate social intercourse, to delight our fancy, and to create symbols of meaning….Leland Ferguson argues that material culture includes all “the things that people leave behind….all of the things people make from the physical world–farm tools, ceramics, houses, furniture, toys, buttons, roads, cities.” (Schlereth 2)

The Jewish Atlantic Database contains a wide range of types of objects from furniture to houses to gravestones to synagogues to ritual baths.   As Schlereth notes, most scholars of material culture assume that, “objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part” (Schlereth 3).  In my book and website, I have also often assumed that objects made and used by Jews in early America reflect a “Jewish” belief system.  It is worth having students think about what “Jewish belief patterns” mean to them and whether they agree with this assertion.

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