Sites of Memory and Life

June 1, 2012
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Rachel Gross

Space and Place in Jewish Studies by Barbara E. Mann (Rutgers University Press, 2012, 192 pp, $25.95)

Too often, Jewish theologians have focused on the significance of time in Judaism, denigrating the import of Jewish conceptions of space. In his powerful monograph, The Sabbath, for instance, Abraham Joshua Heschel declared, “Holiness in space, in nature, was known in other religions.” In Judaism, by contrast, “holiness was gradually shifted from space to time, from the realm of nature to the realm of history, from things to events.” But space and place, both natural and constructed, have never been insignificant in the Jewish imagination, as Jewish Theological Seminary associate professor of Jewish literature Barbara E. Mann demonstrates through numerous examples in Space and Place in Jewish Studies. Rather, space and time have been inseparable in Jewish legal, literary, and historical formulations, if not in modern theological reflections. The second imprint of the Rutgers University Press book series Key Words in Jewish Studies, Mann’s Space and Place is a valuable introduction to the roles that locations, real and imagined, have played in Jewish historical experiences, literary and artistic works, and scholarship.

The book responds to the “spatial turn” in Jewish studies, one of several shifts in recent decades that have slowly pushed Jewish studies in the American academy beyond its once exclusive focus on the study of texts. Following the layout prescribed by the series, Mann organizes her study into three sections. The first, “Terms of the Debate,” is an examination, through rabbinic writings and Hebrew literature, of the themes of makom (place), the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem, and the land. The second, “State of the Question,” offers an increasingly modern historical review of bayit (home), diaspora, and the city. The third, “In a New Key,” briefly explores contemporary case studies of the eruv (ritual enclosure) and Jewish environmentalism.

Not surprisingly, given Mann’s background as a scholar of Hebrew literature and Israel studies, the book has a heavy focus on biblical texts, rabbinic writings, and Hebrew literature. Even as Mann considers a variety of historical and material examples, she upholds the privileged place of text in Jewish studies by focusing on rabbinic writings and Jewish literature above historical studies. In drawing upon French theorist Pierre Nora’s influential term “lieux de memoire,” or “sites of memory,” for example, she explains, “the Talmud may be considered a site of memory par excellence.” While Mann is not incorrect, this excessively metaphoric example for a book about Jewish space continues to emphasize rabbinic writings over Jews’ lived experiences within specific spaces.

Though Mann draws her examples from a diverse set of Jewish contexts, some themes receive inadequate attention. The chapter on the land, for instance, framed in terms of exile and Zionist return to the Land of Israel, would benefit from addressing Jewish farming in the diaspora, which has both drawn upon and challenged Zionist views of geography. Similarly, the chapter on bayit focuses on biblical and rabbinic images of homemaking, from the biblical Mishkan (Tabernacle) to the rabbinic eruv; it would be enriched by historical examples of a more literal kind of homemaking, the domestic practices of Jewish women and men. Likewise, while her study of the city admirably examines Jewish urban experiences under both Islam and Christianity, her treatment of New York, “the capital of the diaspora” remains incomplete, with little explanation of how “the fabric of life, the warp-and-woof of the felt experience of living in New York” makes it a Jewish city. Mann’s conclusion that employing New York as a Jewish symbol “raises the possibility of the diaspora as a vital and creative site of power, not powerlessness” understates the roles of both New York and the diaspora more broadly in Jews’ historical experiences. Given the ambitious scope of the project, Mann could be clearer about why she chose to highlight specific examples.

Nonetheless, while those familiar with the field may find their own interests missing, the book is both a useful introduction for anyone seeking entry to the topic and a volume for scholars looking to contextualize their own studies of particular Jewish spaces. Rather than a complete review of Jewish space and place, never Mann’s goal, the book opens up the topic by examining selective studies, which should inspire questions and challenges from the reader. Mann’s goal is not to complete the task but to engage it, laying out some of the groundwork in order to encourage future study, and she has tackled the enormous topic admirably.

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Rachel Gross is pursuing a doctorate in religion at Princeton University. Her dissertation is a study of the material culture of American Jewish nostalgia.

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