So, before we go further, full disclosure: I have a pillow with the words “Oy Vey” written in gold sequins. My husband owns an “Ugly Chanukah” sweater. And for the past couple of weeks, I haven’t stopped giggling at a onesie a friend showed me on Etsy that reads “Chai, I’m new here.”
In short – I like what I call Judaikitsch. It’s not Judaica, per se. To me, that’s a title reserved for our ritual items, like menorahs and mezuzot. Nor do I consider items like special plates for apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah as kitsch, per se.
Judaikitsch is what I call those everyday items bedazzled with a bit of a Jewish twist. Like the pillow, or the onesie. And it is clear it is becoming more of a trend.
I remember as a kid going to the JCC on Chapel Street at this time of year for what was then called the “Chanukah Book Fair.” The tables were nearly collapsing under the weight of so many Jewish books. Now, the event is called the “Chanukah Gift Fair” and I was struck this year by how few books were actually for sale, and how much kitsch.
Of course, we can buy Jewish books online any day of the year, so perhaps it makes sense there weren’t so many for sale. And also of course, much of the kitsch at the fair was Chanukah themed, snapped up by people – including me – eager to decorate their homes or find crafts appropriate for the season.
Indeed, one of the most popular uses of the ever-growing Ottawa Jewish Parents Facebook page is for people to post photos of where they’ve seen Chanukah merchandise around town. Through our collective love of kitsch, it appears, we also build community.
Which isn’t entirely surprising. Consider a statistic writer Gal Beckerman reports in a recent piece in the New York Times. https://tinyurl.com/y9ug9ggr
In a 2013 survey by the American Pew Research Center, 42 per cent of American Jews surveyed rated “having a good sense of humour” as essential to what it means to them to be Jewish. So perhaps no surprise then that everyone loves a serving platter with a good pun, or cards that say “Happy Challah Days.”
The context for Beckerman’s article was not so much a laughing matter. His piece appeared after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in November, and he was reviewing five recent books on American Jewish life in the context of questions many people have found themselves asking in its aftermath.
I had a lot of anger in the days immediately after the shooting. Some of it was a product of our social media times. I didn’t understand why friends, Jews and non-Jews, people who change their status updates for “Je Suis Charlie” and #TorontoStrong, were saying absolutely nothing about the heinous anti-Semitism that motivated that attack.
Then, at the community vigil we had in Ottawa, a truly rare sight – rabbis from nearly every congregation in the city on the stage, together. And a few days later, synagogues packed tightly with so much love and support. I can say the show of unity, of togetherness, helped calm me down.
It’s a point Beckerman makes in his piece too – that the Pittsburgh attacks unified Jews everywhere. But he asks, what’s next? While anti Semitism is real and horrid and ugly, in and of itself it is not the most pressing threat to Jewish life.
He uses the statistic about humour to make a broader point: Jews rate humour and intellectual curiosity higher than community and religious practice as indicators of their Jewishness. This, Beckerman writes, has us on a path to what’s known as “terminal ethnic identity.”
The condition, such as it is, was defined in the 1970s by sociologist Herbert Gans exploring the transmission of identity among white ethnic groups – such as Jews or Irish – who came to America at the turn of the last century. He predicted that by the third generation, people are likely to view their heritage as more of a leisure-time activity, and by the seventh generation their culture becomes a dim memory.
So, Beckerman notes: “At this rate, American Jews are two or three generations away from being as Jewish as ‘Irish’ people whose Irishness consists of drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day.”
I love my Judaikitsch. But to think that one day that’s maybe all that will be left? To imagine a time where one of our joyous festivals becomes the “Jewish” holiday just like the “Irish” go drinking on St. Patrick’s Day? Like the pillow says, oy vey.