I just sat down to start reading Jenna Weissman Joselit’s The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 for a class. A couple of passages from the introduction really struck me.
Upon arriving in the New World in 1904, folklorist Yehuda Leib Cahan could barely contain his enthusiasm for the vibrancy and color of local Jewish life. “Here folklore can be scooped up by the handfuls,” he exclaimed. The decades that followed Cahan’s visit witnessed a continues efflorescence of Jewish cultural ingenuity and inventiveness that even he would have had difficulty imagining… the likes of plastic dreidels, chocolate-covered matzohs, “yahrtzeit memorandums,” Chanukah bushes, tie clips in the shape of the Ten Commandments, floral Torah crowns, elaborate bar mitzvahs, kosher-style cuisine, and overwrought funerary monuments.
… Jews accumulates a great many things, filling their armoires and attics with silver shabbos candlesticks, chromium Chanukah menorahs, colored-glass Passover dishes, and souvenirs of the Holy Land. Whether a priceless family heirloom brought over from the Old Country or a decorative trifle brought in the New–a tshatshke–objects inhabited and elivened the lived of thousands of American Jewish families, rendering Jewishness tangible.
How delightful. It seems the American Jewry’s great contribution to the world is kitsch. And I think I’m okay with that.