“The world is, minimally and forever, a place-world.” — Edward Casey
Where were you born? How many times have you moved? What makes a place special? When you travel, what makes you feel at home? Could we live, but not live anywhere?
Over the past several years, there has been a renewed interest in the role that place plays in Jewish life. It follows a general Western rethinking of identity from one in which identity is situated in a set of mental contents (the mind-body split in which “who I am” is given by my value system or a set of beliefs, that are only incidentally housed in a body), to a more holistic approach that takes our physical presence in the world more fully into account. This approach sees mind and body as aspects of a single, whole person, (whereby “who I am” is at least in part determined by my actions, my relationships, and the physical environment in
which I live).
We might say that if modernity’s focus was on space/time, the contemporary focus is on place/temporal experience, and with it, on notions of dwelling, inhabiting, and heritage. With this new focus comes an acknowledgement of the role of place in building individual as well as social and communal identities. On an individual level, this has meant reclaiming the importance of our body in thinking about identity and, with it, Jewish identity. Not only are our bodies the most intimate “place” we inhabit, but through our body’s movement in space we express meaning in our daily lives and experience the world around us.
Communally, we have just begun to puzzle over what this means for collective identity. We are beginning to pay increasing attention to the way our communities are located in and shaped by their physical environments, the patterns of movement and the historical meanings that are embedded in place. Asking where someone was born is not merely a conversation starter; it offers us a window into the internalized patterns through which an individual organizes and negotiates the world. (Would I be the same person if I had spent my childhood years growing up in Paris, France, rather than Paris, Texas?)
Attending to place helps us not only to attend to the origins and construction of Jewish cultural and social diversity, but also to explore the ways in which our physical environment affects our identity in the details of everyday life. In what ways does the architecture of a school impact a student’s experience? Does the architecture of a synagogue make Judaism seem grand or intimate? What effect does this have on the Jewish experience and identity of its members? What purposes and commitments are put forward through our design and furnishing of the spaces we inhabit?
Much of the work on place is happening in the field of geography, and there is a growing Jewish interest in applying its insights to our thinking about Jewish identity, community, and peoplehood. In a beautiful book titled Space and Place, the American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan distinguishes between space as movement and place as rest (a pause, a dwelling). Place is space embedded with meaning. We all know the difference between a house and a home: A house is a physical set of spatial parameters, while a home emerges from a life of meaning lived within that spatial/temporal framework. To come home is more than to come to a specific building; it is to come back to one’s center, to the interpretative structures, even the obstacles, that lead us to navigate our lives in a certain way. We might say that the challenge of Jewish education today is to make Judaism a “home” in the lives of the next generation.
In this overview, I will focus on three interests that emerge in current writings on place.
The first concerns the way physical form shapes our cultural imagination. Our relation to geographic place is three dimensional, and the contours of this space shape our orientation in the world. When I visited Cape Town, South Africa, for example, I was intrigued by the way people there spoke about the surrounding hills. The hills gave them a feeling of nestedness, even constraint, while at the same time leading their eyes ever upward. They shared the ways in which this experience contributed to the spiritual life of their community. The experience of growing up in Australia was different; there, the eye was led outward, toward an expansive horizon. In Israel, geography shapes our interpretation of both the desert and the Mediterranean shore. In the Jewish textual imagination, the desert carries with it the experience of awe, fragility, timelessness, and spiritual encounter. Yet in modern Zionist terms, the desert was considered a void — an untamed landscape awaiting settlement, thereby transforming mythic space into new modern dwelling places.1 Urban spaces, too, capture different meanings of place: Tel Aviv’s White City sits in contrast to Jerusalem’s City of Gold. Jewish place is open to an additional dimension. It can be makom or HaMakom: a place in which God dwells, a name for God, “the place” as an orienting center. Makom brings with it the politics of dwelling: sharing place, dividing place, multiple expressions of allegiance.
The physicality of place shapes our imagination at a micro, or bodily, level as well. Gestures and actions become internalized as meaning structures through which we relate to the world around us. High/low, left/right, in/out, inhale/exhale, hold/release, gather/scatter: “All my limbs shall say ‘Who is like You, O Lord?’” (Psalms, 35:10) The choreography of prayer — sitting, standing, bowing in the amidah, rising for kaddish, sitting in the sukkah, shucklen, placing one’s hands on one’s children’s heads with a Shabbat blessing, and sitting in the same seat around the table each Friday night. Our bodies turn space into sites of meaning.
In The Poetics of Space, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard speaks to the way home constitutes a cultural space of meaning, identity, and memory. My grandmother’s side table, the family’s kiddush cup and candlesticks, the contents of the bookshelf and the kitchen, cupboards of clothing (the shtreimel, the knitted kippah, or the kibbutz shirt), items from our travels, all embody our personal narrative. The home also reflects the place where one is in life; it conveys socioeconomic and family cues transmitted through choices of fabric, furnishings, and style. Home is not just physical, but sensual; it is transported through the melodies we sing, through spices, through festivities and through the telling of stories. It travels with the immigrant, reflecting individual experiences, collective history, and socioeconomic standing: a poor man’s gefilte fish, the numerous traditions of charoset. All these place us within the kaleidoscope of Jewish possibilities.
The architecture of place also reflects changing social values — a changing relationship between public and private, vertical to horizontal authority; and this, too, has entered the intimacy of the home. For example, the open-plan kitchen reflects shifting attitudes toward gender and family life, giving expression to changing sensibilities about what should be visible and what should be kept behind closed doors.
Place is also an internalized metaphor. In the European context, the idea of the family home was a multigenerational space where people connected through genealogy, and those who dwelt with them merged in the shared house, or casa. The house established occupations and passed on traditions.2 Such homes, as sites of meaning, are challenged by modern mobility. In the American experience of constant movement — to college, to work, or to another job in another city — home ceases to be constitutive of a multigenerational identity. Place becomes contracted, carried in one’s travels through symbolic items that transport a narrative from place to place — the immigrant’s experience naturalized.
A third contemporary interest in place is in the textured traces of Jewish presence as it has permeated local history and culture in the public domain. For example, traces of occupations and industries (the fur and clothing districts), the stories of street names, the history of old stones used in new walls, the doorpost with its niche for a mezuzah — all carry traces of Jewish place memory. Shifting Jewish neighborhoods as well as our cemeteries and historic sites remind us of Jewish worlds nested in a larger civic sphere.
Through all of this, we as Jews seek to find our place in the world and to build a world in a place. Place is space embedded with meaning.
1 Yael Zerubavel, “Desert and Settlement: Space Metaphors and Symbolic Landscapes in the Yishuv and Early Israeli Culture,” in Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place, Julia Brauch, author/editor, and Anna Lipphardt and Alexandra Nocke, editors, pp.201-222, (Ulster, U.K., Ashgate) 2008
2 Joelle Bahloul, “The Memory House: Time and Place in Jewish Immigrant Culture in France,” in HouseLife: Space, place and family in Europe, eds. Donna Birdwell-Pheasant and Denise Lawrence-Zuñiga, pp. 239-250,
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