Pickling cucumbers, cultivating yeast for Challah, sewing tallit … these hebraic homesteading projects are certainly not for everyone. But most Jews would agree that plenty of our traditions instill a cool-before-it-was-cool “Do It Yourself” aesthetic. This is a culture that often made do with very little and did it all behind closed doors, or within a tight-knit community. Historically, the center of Jewish life was the home, not the synagogue. And so we present to you a list of eight reasonably simple Jewish DIY projects. You can totally do this stuff. I promise.
1. Make a Family Tree
What Jewish family hasn’t played at least one round of Jewish Genealogy? You can go two routes: decorative or academic. If you’re only going to go a couple of generations back, you can fit you findings on a beautiful piece of art to hang in the home.
But if you’re willing to do some digging — uncovering Ellis Island papers, Shtetl Yizkor books and other primary sources of your family’s story — I guarantee that other members of your family would like to be involved in your findings. The venerable JewishGen is a good place to start. Once you’ve got some basic data, consider entering it to an online or printable template (reputable template sites include MyHeritage.com, Wikitree.com and Geni.com), so that it can be safely stored and shared. Be careful of sharing sensitive personal information on these sites, however, and take advantage of relevant privacy controls.
2. Create your own Chuppah
It can cost up to $1,000 to rent a decorated freestanding Chuppah from a wedding planner or florist. If you decide to make your own, it won’t be free, but it won’t cost nearly that much. For inspiration, head to the photo-sharing social network of choice for dreamy brides: Pinterest. Then check out this set of instructions for a simple, freestanding Chuppah. And here are instructions for an equally attractive version that’s designed to be held aloft by four friends.
If you’re into chopping down your own branches, this one is for you.
Of all the holidays I’ve never observed, Sukkot has always looked like the most fun. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who celebrated the autumn festival; my awareness of it came entirely from reading. Sukkot would have seemed exotic if it wasn’t somehow so familiar, a combination of Thanksgiving and being allowed to sleep on the back porch.
Sukkot is known as “the season of our rejoicing,” and though I appreciate the story of the ancient Israelites’ miraculous survival in the desert, what strikes me most is the holiday’s minimalism. Though Jewish law doesn’t forbid you from building an enormous sukkah and filling it with all your belongings, practicality dictates that most sukkahs are small, just a place to eat, (optionally) sleep, hang out surrounded by harvest-themed decorations and, well, rejoice.
So it’s not quite as odd as it sounds that, this year, when I noticed Sukkot was approaching, I thought of my apartment. Sure, it cannot be folded up and stored away, and its roof is neither constructed from natural materials nor partially open to the stars. But my current home in New London, Conn. — and almost every other unit I’ve ever lived in anywhere — is small, basic and, dare I say, sukkah-like. To a lot of people’s consternation, I’m happy with that.
I am hardly the first to make a connection between minimalism, happiness and Sukkot. And I would not be surprised if others had associated this idea with broader debates about American materialism and whether ever-growing McMansions really provide personal fulfillment. (The maximalists seem to be winning at the moment: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of a new single family house went up 88 square feet from 2010 to 2011.)
As a freelancer who works from home, I can claim a portion of my living space as a tax deduction. But last year, when I told my tax preparer my apartment’s size (under 200 square feet), she didn’t believe me. She even went online and pulled up my building’s floor plan from municipal records, triumphantly informing me that in fact my place was over four times as large as I’d said it was. “But that’s the entire floor,” I said. “That includes two other apartments, one twice as large as mine, as well as a hallway and staircase.” She looked skeptical, and grudgingly typed in a number about twice my actual square footage.
“Mad Men” is my favorite television show. I know, I’ve got lots of company. But the plaudits are well deserved for a show that relieves us of overstatement and laugh tracks.
Best about the incisively-written show is the recondite emotional life of its women. Sure, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) tries his hunky best to have mysterious moments, but the other men seem one-dimensional compared to the female characters written by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.
Peggy Olson, played by the fabulous Elisabeth Moss, is a female copywriter working in a man’s world. Her talent is big but her opportunities few, and her frustrations about the limitations of her roles professionally and socially play out on her expressive face.
No woman on the show is able to be her own person, really. All of the strong female leads, including secretary Joan Holloway and Betty Draper, Don’s wife, are limited by their men and the circumscribed roles generally permitted women in the early 1960s.
In their silences and facial expressions, these characters show how airless the life of middle- and upper-middle class women often was. (See Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” for more on that.)
Mad Men has also gotten lots of press for its detailed period décor.
That Double X piece got me to thinking: What décor defines a Jewish home?