Esteemed historian and National Jewish Book Award winner Jenna Weissman Joselit joins Tablet this week as a contributor. She’ll be writing for us once a month—in her signature nimble, quirky, and energetic style—about forgotten and overlooked chapters in American Jewish history.
If you don’t know her work, remedy that immediately. She’s written seven books (so far), but I have two faves. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 is as erudite yet sprightly a book of social history as one could ever hope to read. It uses quirky source materials (Yiddish etiquette guides, temple bulletins, recipes) to show how Jews remade generations-old traditions to fit their perceptions of what it meant to be American. A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America is slavishly quoted all over my book Mamaleh Knows Best—it convincingly shows that the concerns of women, so frequently dismissed as Style Section fodder, are a vital way of looking at a culture.
You’ll have to excuse me if I gush. I’ve idolized this woman for years. In the mid-aughts, our columns ran side-by-side in The Forward; I always felt that mere proximity to her work elevated mine. Few other academics have her gift of combining scholarly research, wit, and vivacity…and I’m thrilled that we’ll be together again at Tablet.
Tablet’s editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse says, “Jenna isn’t simply a phenomenal historian and a penetrating writer—though she is both of those things. But what they combine to produce in her is a sharp chronicler of the often unseen but deeply felt manifestations of the subconscious of Jewish life. It says something that when I announced in a recent staff meeting that she’d be writing for Tablet, no fewer than three editors here were able to quote favorite lines from her books. (Mark Oppenheimer’s was my favorite.)”
(Mark’s choice, taken from a chapter in The Wonders of America, about 20th-century Jewish home décor: “Yet, despite the success of the synagogue gift shop and the popularity of the ‘Jewish Home Beautiful’ ethos, the American Jewish aesthetic remained consistently, almost stubbornly, second-rate.” OK, I admit this is bad-ass.)
Her first column for us, about the rise and fall of New York City’s Jewish cab drivers, is a fine encapsulation of her fabulousness. Enjoy.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.