What Happens to Jewish Culture Without Jews with Alanna Cooper and Hillel Smith

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What happens to our stuff when we’re gone? Hillel Smith and Alanna Cooper join the podcast to talk about their projects that consider what happens to Jewish communities and their stuff, both buildings and objects, especially when we look at communities and synagogues that shrink, disappear, merge together, or move from one place to another.

This is an important issue because when we consider Jewish history in the twentieth century at a 30,000 foot level, one overarching development we might identify is the consolidation of Jewish populations and communities into a handful of countries and major metropolitan centers. Of course, most of this was not by choice, given the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. But if we look at the overall trend, Jews were once found in almost every country on earth – and while you can still more or less find Jews everywhere the vast majority of Jews are today found in Israel and the US, and a handful of countries; and within them, Jews today are consolidating more and more into major metro areas. In our conversation today we look at this in terms of material culture, as Alanna and Hillel are looking closely at this process of communal consolidation and movement which is still going on, when we look at what is left behind as the “traces” of Jewish life in this landscape.

Links to topics and issues we discuss today:

Alanna Cooper is a cultural anthropologist and currently serves as director of Case Western Reserve’s Jewish Lifelong Learning Program. She’s the author of Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism, published in 2013, and is writing a book entitled Preserving and Disposing of the Sacred: American Jewish Congregations. In 2020 she’ll be joining Case Western’s Department of Religious Studies as the Abba Hillel Silver Professor in Jewish Studies.

Hillel Smith is a prolific artist and graphic designer who uses contemporary media to create new manifestations of traditional Jewish forms. He’s painted murals in Southern California, Atlanta, Virginia Beach, Jerusalem, and at the Fendi headquarters in Rome, and he’s pursued online projects like “Parsha Posters” and now “Jewish Traces,” which is supported by Asylum Arts. You can find Hillel’s art and other projects at hillelsmith.info, and the Jewish Traces project, which we talk about in the episode, at www.jewishtraces.com.

Alanna and Hillel’s interest clearly align, inasmuch as both of them are thinking about what happens to the stuff of Jewish culture:

Hillel’s “Jewish Traces” project highlights the monumental buildings and architecture that serve as a material foundation of Jewish life. Cities and communities are always evolving, and Jews are always on the move as part of this. As Jewish communities dwindle, or get too large, they often sell their buildings or abandon them, leaving “traces” of Jewish life throughout the urban and suburban landscape. Through this Jewish Traces project, Hillel is documenting photographing, and annotating some of these “traces” of Judaism and their adaptive reuse in new contexts.

Alanna’s research asks similar, but distinctive, questions about the development of Jewish culture. She looks at communities that merge, shut down, or downsize, and what happens to the buildings as well as parts of buildings: stained glass windows, yizkor memorial plaques, monuments, and so on. Alanna examines the decisions people make about what they leave behind, what they preserve, and what they choose to let go of, and how these decisions are informed by their understanding of their own place in history.

We are so excited to speak with Alanna and Hillel because these projects illuminate some of the issues relating to the nature of material culture in Jewish life, what gets left behind, what is preserved or reused in surprising ways, and by looking at individual cases of cities and communities we can understand the big picture of Jewish history in recent times.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Jason Lustig: Thank you so much for joining me for this really exciting episode. It might be a good way for us to get started, maybe, if each of you just wanted to say a few words briefly about the projects you’re working on.

Alanna Cooper: Sure. I’m working on a book project called Preserving and Disposing of the Sacred: America’s Jewish Congregations. The book is built on the understanding that there’s an intimate relationship between the life of a community and the life of its plastic form. What I mean by that is that things, the physical objects that a congregation owns, are sites for articulating a group’s identity and a sense of belonging to each other. The easiest way to look at that relationship is to look at congregations that are in flux, traveling around to different communities, looking for congregations that are in the midst of change. The big changes I’m interested in are congregations that are merging with other ones, that are downsizing, that are moving or even disbanding, in some cases, congregations that are new, that are in the process of building or forming a new group, and looking at how these different groups relate to physical possessions.

Hillel Smith: I’m Hillel, and I’m an artist in graphic designer, and I’m working on a project called “Jewish Traces” that looks at the buildings that Jews leave behind after a community moves, particularly synagogues. I’m looking at where synagogues used to be and what’s left of them, and how they’ve been incorporated into the environment in new ways. So whether it’s a church that’s taken over a synagogue, or a building that’s turned into a community center, or even just something that’s been gutted and there’s only very tiny traces left of those buildings, and to document that through photography and then make art and write narrative stories about what happened to these communities and tell essentially a biography of the building.

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