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Using Material Objects to Express American Jewish Identity

How do Jewish Americans use and think about objects, rituals and performance when expressing their identities? In his new book, Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America—released in April by Indiana University Press—Professor of Religion Ken Koltun-Fromm addresses this question, drawing on examples from philosophy, literature, psychology, film and photography.

Americans’ use of material objects, such as food or home décor, to reflect their religious faiths has long been a research interest of Koltun-Fromm’s; he also teaches a class at Haverford on the subject. A few years ago, he took a Hurford Humanities Center faculty seminar called “Culture and Value,” led by Associate Professor of English Gus Stadler, and became intrigued by cultural studies. “I wanted to integrate this field with my interest in Jewish thought, and also make room to discuss philosophy and theology,” he says.

Before diving headfirst into writing the book, Koltun-Fromm tested the waters by penning an article about Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, focusing on his journal writing as what Koltun-Fromm calls a “material embodiment” of himself: “Kaplan personifies his journal, calling it his friend, and thinks of it as his own American creation, and not merely, or only, a written text.”  This article became the first chapter of Material Culture.

Other chapters in the book focus on photographer Arnold Eagle’s pictures of Orthodox Jews practicing in urban settings; how writers like Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth use objects like hats, shoes or furniture to define characters in their stories; the attempts by Jewish neo-Freudian psychologists, such as Eric Fromm, a cousin of Koltun-Fromm’s grandfather,  to understand what it means to flourish as an American Jew; and the ways visual materials, like the feminist magazine Lilith and three film versions of The Jazz Singer, show how Jews want to appear to others. This particular exploration inspired Koltun-Fromm to begin his current book-in-progress, about notions of vision and the visual in American Jewish thought.

With Material Culture, Koltun-Fromm hopes to build a bridge between the disciplines of cultural studies and modern Jewish thought. The book is a personal triumph as well: “I finally wrote the book I always wanted to write.”

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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