The Object of Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Mate­r­i­al History

  • Review
By – November 14, 2022

There are many ways to write a his­to­ry, and many ways to read a text. Bar­bara E. Mann, pro­fes­sor of cul­tur­al stud­ies at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, is inter­est­ed in the pos­si­bil­i­ties that the lens of mate­r­i­al cul­ture affords a Jew­ish read­er: that is, she ana­lyzes the mate­r­i­al qual­i­ties of texts, the lit­er­ary depic­tion of objects, and dis­course about mate­ri­al­i­ty dur­ing a peri­od shaped by migra­tion, war, and social and polit­i­cal change.” What a text says mat­ters, yes — but rel­e­vant too is the way it feels, what it is bound in, what ink was used, and where it was stored.

With­in these bound­aries,” she writes, my approach is com­par­a­tive; fur­ther­more, like recent schol­ar­ship on the rela­tion between lan­guage and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the mod­ern peri­od, I use the term Jew­ish pro­vi­sion­al­ly, as a for­mu­la­tion of a con­tin­u­um, one worth ques­tion­ing and con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing, rather than as a self-evi­dent cat­e­go­ry.’” Mann describes her fas­ci­na­tion with the mate­ri­al­i­ty of lit­er­a­ture as stem­ming from a dis­cov­ery in the base­ment stacks at Ban­croft Library … at Berke­ley,” where she found a copy of one of the ear­li­est Hebrew jour­nals from Pales­tine, cir­ca 1908:

The journal’s crum­bling pages were browned with age, and its bind­ing was split open, reveal­ing threads and pack­ing mate­r­i­al. As I gin­ger­ly exam­ined the dam­aged, peel­ing spine, I could see that the jour­nal had been bound using pieces of Russ­ian news­pa­per. Per­haps the pages of Cyril­lic print had been the lin­ing of a trunk, or a coat, of a recent­ly arrived immi­grant; or maybe the news­pa­per had arrived in the port city in a ship­ping con­tain­er, wrapped around items in a com­mer­cial deliv­ery, or in the pos­ses­sion of a crew mem­ber on board.

The Object of Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture is full of so many such rec­ol­lec­tions — descrip­tions of texts that become some­thing more. While it might be cliché to point out that every book tells a sto­ry beyond the one con­tained in its pages, that beyond­ness is at the core of Mann’s pursuits.

In truth, this is a chal­leng­ing read for any­one not famil­iar with the world of aca­d­e­m­ic Judaism. It is, how­ev­er, a deeply reward­ing one. It allows access into a kalei­do­scope of Jew­ish texts, poems, and mis­sives — some well-known, oth­ers metic­u­lous­ly resur­faced. Over­all, the book’s strength lies in its enthu­si­asm. Mann’s devo­tion to the sacred move­ment, place­ment, and mean­ing of things is immer­sive and reverent.

Chap­ters move from Jew­ish imag­ism to Maus, Holo­caust memo­r­i­al books to graph­ic nov­els. Par­tic­u­lar­ly engag­ing is the con­ver­sa­tion about lit­tle mag­a­zines,” anal­o­gous in many ways to what we now call zine cul­ture. For the lay schol­ar, The Object of Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture is some­thing to be savored, chap­ter by chap­ter. It is worth spend­ing mean­ing­ful time with each of Mann’s images and descriptions.

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

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