2. Voices

Material culture provides access to underrepresented “voices” in Jewish American history.

Although religious and literary texts are most often authored by men with financial means, material culture is used by all members of a society.  All married women, regardless of economic status, were required to use ritual baths (though whether they did is another question).  Women, whether married or not, lived in houses and had furniture and dishes.  These objects can help flesh out probate records that often list the locations of houses or the items owned by a family.

jewishatl-artifacts-from-excavation-at-the-gomez-mill-house-marlboro-new-york

Artifacts from excavation at the Gomez Mill House, Marlboro, New York. Photo by Laura Leibman, 2007 (© Jewish Atlantic World Database)

Moreover, unlike high art which often was used to signify the elite status of the owner, gravestones are usually preserved from the graves of a wide range of community members, from the wealthiest men to children who were slaves or servants.  By comparing the funerary art of elites and non-elites, we get a greater sense of range of ways Judaism was embodied during any one era.

jewishatl-view-of-the-creole-cemetery-jodensavanne-suriname

View of the Creole Cemetery, Jodensavanne, Suriname. Photo by Laura Leibman, 2008 (© Jewish Atlantic World Database)

To think about how Judaism was embodied is to consider the variety of ways specific physical spaces and anatomies influenced Judaism in the Diaspora. Just as rabbinical sermons and decrees proclaimed the limits of Jewish practice and identity in the colonies, so too this wide range of bodies helped define who and what was a Jew.

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