Sarah Ann Hays Myers, Commonplace book. American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY and Boston, MA.

Join us this spring for the Leon Levy Foundation Lectures in Jewish Material Culture. Laura Arnold Leibman will deliver a three-part lecture series entitled “The Art of the Jewish Family: Material Culture in Early New York.” Lecture 3, “Commonplace Things” will take place on Wednesday, March 28, at 6 pm. Barbara Mann, Professor of Cultural Studies and Modern Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will offer a response.

March 14, Lecture 1: Pieces of Silver
March 21, Lecture 2: Portrait in Ivory
March 28, Lecture 3: Commonplace Things

Additional support provided by The David Berg Foundation.

Between 1750 and 1850, New York went from being one of many small Jewish communities on the Atlantic seaboard to the largest Jewish community in the Americas, a community whose size rivaled or surpassed many of the historic Western European Jewish centers. The population surge was only one part of the story: over the course of the century, the community shifted from Sephardic- to Ashkenazi-centered, and family structure metamorphosed as Jews adapted their marriage patterns to American life. The Art of the Jewish Family looks at how Jews of early New York mediated the radical changes in their lives through material culture, particularly objects associated with displaying and maintaining the family. In each lecture Leibman will focus on one of three key items typically found in Jewish homes: silver, portraits, and commonplace books.

Our story begins just before the Revolutionary War. While the rise of the Enlightenment had caused Christian marriages to shift from arranged marriages as a social ideal to partnerships in which women were encouraged to marry for love, early Jewish American marriage contracts remained deeply tied to economics and social relations throughout the eighteenth century. Jewish marriages tended to be more conservative because in the Atlantic World, women mattered deeply to kinship and Jewish culture. The gifts women received upon marriage helped cement families and reminded women of their obligations to both their biological and conjugal relations. By the early nineteenth-century, however, this ideal had fallen into question. While women still found themselves weighed down by economic calculations, marriage increasingly took on romantic expectations. Intimate portraits began to be exchanged as love tokens prior to engagement. By the 1830s, Jewish women embraced the romantic ideal of marriage more fully, often choosing not to marry rather than be yoked to a loveless, but economically advantageous, partnership. Just as Christian women had used the language of romance to challenge the older notion of arranged marriages, so too single Jewish women now co-opted the language of romance and affection to challenge traditional notions of Jewish kinship. This reformulation of Jewish kinship had important, long-term ramifications for Jewish communal life as women’s role expanded beyond creating biological Jews (offspring) to cementing the larger Jewish nation via affective ties. Commonplace books and personal letters became a key place where Jewish women reformulated the ideal of the Jewish family.

This final lecture uses a nineteenth-century commonplace book to highlight the rise of the new Jewish woman and radical changes in the Jewish family. The niece of Rebecca Gratz and educator in her own right, Sara Ann Hays Mordecai (1805–1894) married for love, a love that would haunt her as the Civil War began and the New Yorker found herself bound to a new family in the South. Better educated than either Reyna Moses or Sarah Brandon Moses, Sara styled herself as a producer of goods, and compiled a commonplace book consisting of 102 manuscript poems and 22 illustrations. Like the beakers a few generations before, the work served to bind Sara to others—weaving their thoughts and desires with her own. Unlike the alignments of an earlier era, however, the family and friends’ contributions were directed by Sara herself and centered on feminine companionship. In this talk, Leibman will place Sara’s visually exquisite commonplace book alongside her biography of Gratz to reveal the new roles she envisioned women playing in the Jewish family.

Laura Arnold Leibman is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on religion and the daily lives of women and children in early America, and uses everyday objects to help bring their stories back to life. She is the author of Indian Converts (UMass Press, 2008), the co-editor of Jews in the Americas, 1776–1826 (Routledge, 2017), and the author of Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (Vallentine Mitchell, 2012), which won a National Jewish Book Award, a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies, and was selected as one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013. Leibman has previously been a visiting scholar at Oxford University, Utrecht University, and the University of Panama. Known for her scholarship in Digital Humanities, she served as the Academic Director for the award-winning multimedia public television series American Passages: A Literary Survey (2003). Leibman, who earned her PhD from UCLA, is currently at work on a book that uses material culture to trace the history of members of a multiracial family who began their lives as slaves in the Caribbean and became some of the wealthiest Jews in New York. She has been appointed Leon Levy Foundation Professor of Jewish Material Culture at Bard Graduate Center for the spring 2018 semester.

Barbara Mann is professor of Jewish Literature and Simon H. Fabian Chair in Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her areas of expertise include Israeli and Jewish literatures, cultural studies, modern poetry, urban studies, literary modernism and the fine arts. Mann is the author of Space and Place in Jewish Studies (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space (Stanford University Press, 2005), in addition to numerous scholarly articles. From 1997 to 2004, she was a member of the faculty at Princeton University, where she also served as a faculty fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion. From 2007 to 2008, Dr. Mann was a scholar-in-residence at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. In 2011–2012, she was a Lady Davis Visiting Fellow in the Humanities at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Mann received an NEH Fellowship in 2015–2016 for her work-in-progress, “The Object of Jewish Literature: A Material History,” which is under contract with Yale University Press.

This event will be livestreamed. Please check back the day of the event for a link to the video. To watch videos of past events please visit our YouTube page.