Lacquer screens, silk pillows, even statues of Buddha—when it comes to decorating their homes, why do so many Jews look to Asia for inspiration?
The Chinese, in particular, are our brothers from another mother. As Marc Tracy pointed out in his Tablet piece on Jews and Chinese food last year, newly acculturating Jews found Chinese food just foreign and exotic enough. Unlike Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants don’t have off-putting bleeding-saint and Holy-Virgin-adorned décor. The flavor profiles of Cantonese food are reassuringly Jew-y: sweet-and-sour, lots of garlic, no mixing of meat and dairy. Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, told Tracy that Chinese restaurateurs quickly learned to capitalize on this affinity, advertising wonton soup as “chicken soup with kreplach.”
And maybe World War II had a role in broadening Jews’ global perspective. My brilliant friend Sara, who majored in History and Literature at Harvard and therefore knows these things, has another idea. “My theory is that the taste trend was influenced by returning Pacific-theater vets,” she says. Could be.
But maybe loving Asian stuff is a way to dissociate from the shtetl shame we feel in our own. David Mamet certainly thinks so. In “The Decoration of Jewish Houses,” an essay in his 1989 collection Some Freaks, Mamet bemoaned American Jews’ lack of pride as expressed in Jewish décor objects. “[I]n our homes, in that which speaks of rest, of identity, we have no symbols,” he wrote. “We do not know how a Jewish home (finally, we do not know how a Jew) is supposed to look. We see in our homes the occasional and vaguely Semitic ‘quote,’ a Hebraised motto in English, a mosaic coffee table, a piece of Judaica.” Mamet sees this lack of stuff as showing a desperate kind of assimilationism. “In our support of the moral, social, and emotional rights of the oppressed, we put ourselves, the Jews, behind not only every other racial group, we put ourselves behind the seals and the whales. Now, funny as that is, you, gentle reader, you tell me I’m wrong.”
Dave, you’re wrong. That may have been true in 1989 (and earlier—I’ve noted how the Jewish artist Ezra Jack Keats seemed to depict sympathetically children of every culture, race, and ethnicity except Judaism), but I don’t think it’s true now. Today’s Jews proudly display expansive walls of wedding and bar/bat mitzvah photos, kippot clearly visible. A lot of us do have Jewish ethnic art (bought with cash money, not inherited from grandparents) and modern Israeli art. My own favorite piece is a huge, battered wooden sign for a tailor shop on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, written in Yiddish. It looks like it’s from the turn of the century, but it’s actually a prop from the 1981 movie The Chosen, starring Robby Benson. The fake-realness and real-fakeness of it amuses me. Some of my other friends have Yiddish theater posters and pieces by contemporary Jewish-American artists. Yes, we Jews still love ethnic pieces that don’t reflect our own ethnicity (my last apartment looked like a Moroccan opium den) but I think that’s a reflection of globalization—a force for good and for ill—as much as the self-concept of American Jews.
Besides, maybe the Hebraic/Asian love affair goes both ways in this country. We’re the models for How to Make It in America. Our FOB (fresh off the boat) ancestors produced Ivy-educated doctor offspring. New immigrants look to us. My friend Jeff Yang, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, deadpans, “Strangely, my parents decorated their house with Jewish bling.”
I grew up in a world of observance, separate from secular America, but soon realized that the borders are more porous than they seem