Objects d’heart

By Rahel Musleah
Fall 2011

At every Jewish holiday, Sherry Turkle sets her table with her grandmother’s “good dishes,” the fine-patterned, delicate china made in Czechoslovakia that she recalls from holiday meals at her grandparents’ home. She mixes them with the set she herself bought as a young woman specifically because they reminded her of her grandmother’s.

Purchased from a pushcart on the Lower East Side, the china has been passed down through the generations, beginning with Turkle’s great-grandmother. “It always gives me such pleasure to see my daughter and her friends eating holiday meals using the dining room treasures of my youth,” says Turkle. “I feel a connection to my past, to my family, and to the family threads of Jewish celebration.”

Jewish ritual and tradition overflow with objects. Kiddush cups, candlesticks, spice boxes, prayer books, tallitot, mezuzot, kippot—the list is almost endless. Often, these objects are receptacles of memory, instantly conjuring up a fragrant Shabbat dinner or a grandparent’s loving touch. Sometimes, the objects are mundane—a soup pot, a coffee table, a stained recipe card—but they create links to preceding generations that render them almost sacred. Though our society encourages us to reduce, reuse or recycle, the precious objects we keep can help ground us and strengthen our own identities.

For Susan Pollak, 56, her grandmother’s rolling pin with its chipped red handles opens the door to comfort and memory. “When I make cookie dough with my children, I use her rolling pin…I exert gentle pressure and roll the dough back and forth. I add flour and flip it over to the other side. This tactile ritual takes me back to the warmth of her kitchen, the aromas of her cooking, and the comfort of her baking. As I bake, I often tell my children stories about Grandma Tilly. The loss is still present, but now bittersweet.”

All her grandmother’s old cooking equipment—from her rolling pin to her potato masher—evoke Pollak’s memories of the “deep love and nurturance” with which her grandmother imbued her cooking. The loss or the absence of a loved one makes an item even more valuable by layering it with emotion, Pollak adds. “There are objects I love, like a new pair of earrings, but they don’t have that resonance from the past that takes me back to a comforting time when our lives did not move so fast.”

“We grow up with the Torah, the stories of our ancestors and a sense of the accumulated history of our people. Objects root us into that history,” says Pollak, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. “They remind us of who we are, where we’ve been, where we are going.” That impulse, she says, is specifically Jewish and simultaneously universal.

Rebecca Sassouni, a 40-year-old mother of four children ages 9 to 14, and a first-generation American of Persian descent from Great Neck, N.Y., treasures the silver tea set her grandmother gave her as an engagement gift. “My grandmother used it to serve tea to her suitors. In Iran, serving tea was a measure of a person’s carriage and whether she would be good wife material.”

The tea set, its poignant story and the traditions of courtship it embodies, she says, “take me back to the place of my origins.” Her grandmother, Malek Yousefzadeh, now 90, worked hard to buy the tea set herself, because her family was very poor. Yousefzadeh’s mother had died, and she had to care for her younger siblings when she was just a teenager herself. She got married at the “late age of 19,” Sassouni says. “The tea set reminds me of the hardships she had to go through and the actions she had to take to marry a Jewish man in Kashan. Had she not raised the money and purchased the tea set she needed for the courtship, our family would not be here. The tea set symbolizes a step along the way to our family.”

“What endures?” asks Sassouni, a retired attorney. “At some point, if we are fortunate, we own enough shoes or have enough clothes. There’s no room for any more, and then we start disposing.” The tea set holds a revered place in Sassouni’s home. It is displayed elegantly in the living room alongside a silver-covered siddur from her husband’s grandfather inscribed in Farsi (“This is for you, my grandson”), newer ritual objects like candle holders and a spice box, and all her children’s Jewish art projects. “We also create our own heirlooms,” says Sassouni. “How much does it cost for paper, glue and glitter? Their value is not that of antique silver. But I want my kids to know that what they have created has a position of honor in our home. Their value is in the eye of the beholder—me.”

Sassouni’s friend Jackie Einstein Astrof, 39, comes from an entirely different background. Her mother’s family fled Germany in 1938, her father’s family a year later. “We don’t have much stuff,’” says Astrof, a nonprofit executive. “We were not able to bring a lot out of Germany with us.” But, she notes, “there are lots of things we do, as opposed to things we have.” The most memorable are the German melodies for the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, and for the Passover songs Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea sung in German. “We sing them from haggadot written in Hebrew and Gothic German dating back to the 1800s. It makes us feel close as a family.” She has passed down those traditions to her children, ages 8 and 6. “When they were 2 years old, I taught them, ‘When I point to you, you say, ein lamschen [chad gadya, one baby goat].’ They know the songs better and better each year.”

Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has been fascinated by objects from the time she discovered a “memory closet” in her grandparents’ Brooklyn home, crammed with keepsakes like keychains, postcards, unpaired earrings, high school notebooks and photographs, through which she sifted for clues to her family history and her own identity. She translated that personal passion to scientific inquiry in Evocative Objects, a collection of essays she edited. (Pollak’s “Rolling Pin” is one of the entries.)

Usually, says Turkle, we view objects as useful or beautiful, necessities or luxuries. But we don’t often consider them powerful avenues to emotion and identity that allow us to remember events and people in the most profound ways and to bring meaning, healing and perspective to our lives. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (“Our Possessions, Our Selves,” Ferraro, Escelas and Bettman), the value of a possession goes beyond its functionality to symbolize achievements, relationships or values. The objects even “go beyond being thought of as ‘mine’ to being thought of as ‘me…’”

Janice Colmar searched for a beloved object to represent her father at her daughter’s bat mitzvah. “When my mother died, I put on a bracelet of hers that I inherited, and I felt she was with me all the time. I realized I had nothing of my father’s as a constant reminder of him.” (He died in 1993.) Colmar had been considering the commitment of wearing a tallit but was not yet ready, so she held her father’s tallit on her lap. Shortly afterward, she decided to take on the mitzvah.

For her son Danny’s bar mitzvah three years later, she asked the artist creating his tallit to “feminize” her father’s traditional black-and-white striped prayer shawl. “I had read that women could wear a tallit if it were not men’s clothing,” she says. The artist attached a new atarah (neckband) in a light purple satin overlaid with lace and embroidered Colmar’s parents’ names on it. “To this day I won’t wear any other tallit,” says Colmar, educational director of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, N.J. “Though it engulfs me and helps me focus myself for prayer, it’s much more a generational bond than a ritual object. It reflects me as my father’s daughter and brings him into the conversation.”

It’s precisely because we live in a disposable society that the things we keep matter more, says Paul Radensky, museum educator for Jewish schools at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “Jewish life in America and Israel reflects the immigrant experience,” he adds. “What did people choose to bring over with them? Things that connect us to our past and maybe our future. And maybe to something greater than ourselves, like God, the Jewish people, Jewish history. Something passed down from parents or grandparents.” Judaism is a religion of here and now, of doing things, he adds. “Objects are very important to that framework. Judaism is not just beliefs—it’s actions—and often you need an object to perform a mitzvah or to live a Jewish life.”

Radensky directs a project called The Living Museum for middle-school students in dozens of Jewish day and congregational schools across the country. Each student selects an artifact or heirloom that serves as a catalyst to explore Jewish history through the lens of his or her own family story. The artifacts form the basis of a mini-museum in their schools; schools can also create virtual exhibits online. A mortar and pestle from Russia (1850–1870) reminded student curator Madison D. (last names are not given in the virtual exhibits) of the six generations of her family, especially her grandfather, who “remembers his great-grandmother using this mortar and pestle to help make hamentaschen when he was a young child,” according to her online description. Benjamin O., of Temple Beth Ahm Religious School in Aberdeen, N.J., entered a Seder plate his great-grandmother bought in Israel when she got married in 1934. “They didn’t have money to buy fancy things, but keeping tradition alive was important enough to spend money on the plate. It reminds me that it’s important to keep your religion alive, no matter what the sacrifice,” Benjamin wrote.

“Every artifact tells a story,” says Radensky. “Even simple things have importance. What makes an object sacred? If you took the mezuzah from your home in Cracow and kept it all through the Holocaust, it’s a lot different than the mezuzah you bought in the Judaica store yesterday—even if the new one has a scroll that is more ‘kosher.’” In a teacher-training workshop, one participant brought in a can opener that his grandfather took with him when he fled with his family from Vienna to Shanghai. “We need to eat,” the grandfather had reasoned. That simple object resonated with the values of family, nourishment and survival.

If objects serve as the links in a chain, someone has to start the chain. Artist Amanda Ford has been running intergenerational tallit-making workshops at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md., for 15 years. The process shared by pre–bar mitzvah children and their parents is both creative and meaningful. Sometimes a parent will even craft a tallit for his or her parent. An object can be spiritual, says Ford, “when it sets a mood and makes you think about what you are doing. It’s a way of preparing for a mindset, like a boy putting on a Superman costume. You put the tallit on and feel closer to your Judaism.”

Atlanta-based designer Ellen Witt, 32, literally created a new chain from the old. While cleaning out a closet in her parents’ home four years ago, she found childhood trinkets from her bat mitzvah, an Israel trip, Jewish summer camp, family vacations and a Tiffany charm from a colleague. She quickly strung them on a chain to take home, but liked the necklace so much she began wearing it all the time. “To me, this necklace tells the story of my life and reminds me of my strong Jewish identity and cultural upbringing.” She now collects vintage pieces for her business, MarcellinaG.com. “Objects have a stronger meaning if you know their history,” she says. “It’s a very special thing to be able to create something new and beautiful out of something old that was once a part of another person’s life.”

Along with her necklace, Witt wears a shorter-length chain that belonged to her grandmother. “My great-grandmother left her engagement ring to my grandmother, and my grandmother designed a modern-looking necklace from it. She wore that necklace every day of her life until she gave it to me three years before she passed away. I never felt right wearing it while she was still living, but now I rarely take it off.” Both her own charm necklace and her grandmother’s make her feel the same way, says Witt: “grounded and tied to my roots.”

It’s important, says Pollak, to hold onto the things you love and that evoke cherished memories. “Anything that can anchor us in history and give us a sense of deep knowing who we are,” she concludes, “is enormously nourishing.”