The Matter of Jewishness: Rules for the Collection and Display of Material Culture

By Erica Lehrer.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Based on a recent curatorial experience, I will explore how Jewish heritage is shaped by the multiple hands through which “Jewish” objects pass as they are collected, donated, categorized, and selected by curators for display. The process demonstrates significant assertions, desires, and dialogues about the boundaries of the category “Jewish.” Defining “Jewish” is hard enough when we speak of people or practices. But a book? A spoon? A painting? A hat? What makes these things Jewish? Scholars of “Jewish” art and literature have long struggled with the issue. Spoken and tacit “rules” – of art and craft, of connoisseurship and individual taste, of cultural dirty laundry vs. public self-presentation – circulate, constrain, and conflict. As “high culture” gives way to “material culture” in museums and collections, democratizing the notion of “Judaica,” we are confronted with hard questions and new contexts for understanding what many Jews consider their material heritage. For example, how do objects not visibly Jewish, or those made or widely-used by non-Jews, become “Judaica”? Conversely, why do some objects, widely-agreed upon as “Jewish,” elicit such tension or ambivalence that they are forced to remain “in the closet”? And what might these inclusions and exclusions tell us about the emerging Jewish memory culture?

Keywords: Collecting, Culture, Memory, Jewish

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.45-56. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.409MB).

Dr. Erica Lehrer

Assistant Professor, History Department, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Erica Lehrer is an assistant professor in the History Department at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where she is also Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography & Museology. Trained as an anthropologist (Ph.D. U. Michigan 2005) with a certificate in museum studies (Michigan 2005), she is completing a book manuscript titled Remaking Memory: How Jews and Poles are Salvaging Jewish Heritage in Poland (and reconceiving national belonging along the way), based on ethnographic fieldwork in Poland, Israel, and the United States. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright, IREX, and Mellon foundations, among others. Her core interests deal with cultural practices and products that attempt to apprehend, represent, or come to terms with mass violence and its aftermath – from the stories told in theoretical and creative texts to films, monuments, exhibitions and the “happenings” of everyday life. She is engaged in a number of related public projects of cultural interpretation, exhibition, translation, dialogue, and exchange.

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