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.
Material culture provides students with a very visceral understanding of cultural change and continuity. Three types of comparison are made more accessible by the database format.
First, material culture provides a means by which students can think about what made Jewish life and culture distinctive. With the Jewish Atlantic World Database, students can easily compare Jewish Cemeteries to those that housed the graves of Protestants, Catholics, African Americans, or Masons. The download tool makes it easy for students to download data associated with each cemetery and import it into an excel spreadsheet so that they can chart either changes over time or across different cemeteries.
Second, material culture can help students think about how local cultures impacted and changed Jewish culture. In the Jewish Atlantic World Database, for example, students can browse materials by ports or regions. This allows students to see whether material culture in specific Jewish communities varied from port to port and how and why local cultures influenced change. What did Jews have in common across ports? What types of material culture were more likely to be influenced by regional trends?
Third, material culture provides students with an easy means to access how Jewish traditions have changed and been maintained over time. For both Curaçao and Newport, students are provided with images of early Jewish cemeteries and nineteenth and twentieth century Jewish cemeteries. In Newport, for example, they can compare the gravestones found in the Touro Cemetery with those found in the Jewish section of the Braman Cemetery. In Curaçao, students can compare the colonial Beit Haim Cemetery in Blenheim with the later Beit Haim Cemetery in Berg Altena. In Newport, students will find a great deal of difference between the colonial and later cemetery, whereas in Curaçao there is more continuity. Students should think about why this might be the case.