NAASR Notes: Laura S. Levitt


NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

“Ritual and Rites of Holocaust Commemoration: A Silence in the Archive”

by Laura S. Levitt, Temple University

I want to consider the kinds of “taboos” in Holocaust studies more broadly speaking, around using religious language to describe our various relations to the Holocaust more generally and to objects and their preservation, more specifically. This silence echoes the kinds of aesthetic objects and works of art and architecture that are at the center of Brett Kaplan’s important study Unwanted BeautyThese taboos ward against or contain such works as they touch so much that offends. They do not, however, stop the kinds of affective engagements such works nevertheless produce. In other words prohibitions do not end such affective engagements, they often simply send them underground.

Here I am thinking as well about Christian engagement with the Holocaust where it is almost impossible for many Christians not to be reminded of, or to refer to Jesus on the Cross, or the Passion narratives when confronted by the devastation of the Holocaust. [1] Here I want consider the similar kinds of prohibitions that mark the use of religious language in the Holocaust archive and turn to some of the work of Oren Stier on Holocaust “icons” and “relics” and conclude this note by engaging with an essay by religious studies scholar Jennifer Hughes. Through Hughes’ essay I consider how a more robust engagement with religious discourse, a discourse that has historically appreciated the animating character of objects and their agency, might enable us to begin to talk more fully about the vibrancy of Holocaust objects.

I am interested in both those material artifacts housed in Holocaust museums, in the terms of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the “rescued evidence” of genocide and the mass atrocities that constitute the Holocaust, and those material objects held in police storage as evidence of specific violent crimes, especially rape and murder. What does it mean to hold these once ordinary pieces of clothing, bedding, a suitcase, a toothbrush? What do these now strangely bristling objects have to tell us about the crimes they witnessed? What is the allure of these once ordinary objects in an ever-changing present? Although the common rationale for why we hold such objects is that they have use value and are to be deployed as evidence in order to prosecute those responsible for such crimes in legal trials and tribunals and in the historical record. Nevertheless, there is something about the allure of these objects that haunt their custody.

Beyond their use value as evidence, these objects continue to speak to us. The smell of decaying shoes in the permanent exhibit of the USHMM, the fragile materiality of those striped concentration camp uniforms, the bloodied pair of pantyhose used to strangle Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan murdered in 1969 whose case was reopened over thirty years later, after a one in a million DNA match from some pieces of evidence from that case as described by poet Maggie Nelson.

In all of these cases material objects speak, they call out to us in ways not contained by these more overt narratives of doing justice. Such objects have a kind of agency. And so it is that I have been wrestling with the question of how these otherwise silent objects move us.

In order to get at these issues Jennifer Hughes refuses the instrumental logic of such accounts of objects as evidence and insists on their vibrant agency. This work has propelled me to dig deeper into why it is that I find myself so obsessed with once ordinary possessions that have been transformed by violence. And, on the other hand, I have found Oren Stier’s account of the sacralization of Holocaust objects crucial. By writing about both “icons” and “relics” in places like the USHMM, Stier demonstrates how this language of a kind of Christian material and visual culture helps flesh out a process of contemporary Jewish communal commemoration around such objects. Even as these same efforts are resisted by so many of us in Jewish studies as sacrosanct, Stier asks us to appreciate how such religious language animates these silences. These practices are everywhere apparent in efforts to preserve Holocaust memory in its materiality. In other words, there are objects that do not speak and a discourse that all-too-often animates these objects and our engagements with them that is itself unspoken. The discourse of the sacred may help us better address these engagements.

In his first book, Committed to Memory, Stier was among the earliest scholars of Holocaust memory to move from textual study to not only monuments and memorials (James Young) but to the enactment of memory through ritual and performance as well as museum exhibitions. In his new book, Holocaust Icons, Stier uses material, numerical, rhetorical, and both written and photographic “icons” to link picture theory (WJT Mitchell) with scholarly work on religious icons. He does this in order to ask larger questions about the labor of making Holocaust memory into history. By noticing how religious icons cross genre boundaries, he shows us how they make accessible that which remains otherwise just out of reach—silent, the animating qualities of these objects and figures. And perhaps more to the point, in “Torah and Taboo: Containing Jewish Relics and Jewish Identity at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ”[2] Stier addresses the interplay between ritual and the display of various sacred objects—religious and otherwise—at the USHMM. This time Stier offers an account of the complicated Halachic considerations that went into the museum’s display of a desecrated Torah, but what he writes echoes broader engagements with all of the museum’s rescued evidence.

In an essay for a forum on the question of “evidence”[3] in the study of North American religion, Jennifer Hughes writes:

Many of the Mesoamerican traditions that I study, share a common religion-affective posture of tender regard for mundane objects imbued with life: maize plants, mountains, stones, divine effigies and ‘idols,’ ancestral bundles, and (since the colonial period) saints images. All of these objects are engaged as sacred persons; as ‘beings’ not ’things’ (16).

She continues:

The religious objects under consideration here are better comprehended, first and foremost, as vital, dynamic, and even agentive members of the communities that we study. They are material manifestation of the sacred, to whom devotees and practitioners attribute animus—existence, being, desire, and potency. They possess a ‘vital materiality’ (16).

And here I want to follow Hughes to break a kind of silence and consider anew the status of Holocaust objects.

Hughes explains in part some of the reasons why religious studies bristles at these kinds of claims, [4] but insists on the active agency of objects nevertheless. These are not as passive vessels that are used for some other purpose like the terms fetish and animism presume. For Hughes such “object-entities” are not narrowly “evidence” (17) they are “active participants in the complex religion-social networks that ethnographers of religion observe and describe” (17). Hughes continues “Objects performing as evidence do so through the ‘prerogative of power’”(17). For Hughes this is “a demand” that is “haunted by colonial power among other things” (17). [5] Given all of this, Hughes is interested in deploying “vital materialist ontologies” in order to “better attend to these dynamic actors”(18).[6]

To better appreciate the vitality of presumably mute objects in Holocaust collections, I suggest we stay with Hughes and Stier to imagine more fully the sacred and vital agency of bristling Holocaust objects.


[1] See, for example Tania Oldenhage’s recent work in German. Tania Oldenhage, Netestmentliche Passionsgeschichten nach der Shoah: Exegese als Teil der Erinnerungskultur (Judentum Und Christentum). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag, 2014.

[2] Oren Stier, “Torah and Taboo: Containing Jewish Relics and Jewish Identity at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” NUMEN, 57:3-4(May 2010), 505-536.

[3] “Mysterium Materiae: Vital Matter and the Object as Evidence in the Study of Religion,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 41.4 (November 2012), 16-24.

[4] Hughes writes: “To date, religious studies has not crafted an interpretive language capable of encompassing these objects. The Protestant-normative, Reformationist, Western, and utterly ‘American’ ethos of religious studies—its preoccupation with belief over practice, with the invisible mysterium over the material tremendum, its reverence for the interior and disdain for the exterior—these have hindered the development of a theoretical apparatus capable of approximating and interpreting the complex role of living matter in diverse religious practices” (16).

[5] Hughes also says that she  “learned a great deal, for example from holding, caressing, and cradling saints’ images as a common devotional practice in Mexico” (21).

[6] For Hughes these issues are also a challenge to the discourse of the new materialism and its similarly allergic reaction to religious language. She writes “The consecrated host—arguably another manifestation of vital matter” (19) only to turn her attention to this new literature that should be more closely aligned with religious studies. In so doing, she calls for ontological revisions critiquing beautifully and powerfully this trend in anthropological theory since 2000, trend that places vital objects at the center of scholarly analysis. Turning to a key work in this area, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter:  Political Ecology of Things (2010), Hughes writes “Bennett calls for a radial ontological shift, asking us to ‘elide the question of the human’ in order to grapple with what things do: with the way that the objects and materials that we commonly understand as dead (common refuse, metal, chemicals, food, etc.) impact and impinge upon human lives” (20). What Hughes finds missing in this amazing text is an abiding engagement with religious practice. As she explains, the book is ‘replete with religious imagery and language; Bennett even concludes her text with a ‘litany,’ a creed, for the vital materialist (2010, 122). But at the same time she explicitly excludes religious perceptions of matter from her analysis, warning against understanding material vibrancy as a ‘spiritual supplement’ or ‘life force’: matter slivery, she explains, ‘but not ensouled’ (2010, xvii)” (20). Hughes explains that Bennett rejects “consistently and thoroughly,” “the spiritualization of the vibrant materiality she identifies” (20).

Laura S. Levitt is a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University where she has chaired the department of Religion and served as director of both the Women’s Studies and the Jewish Studies Programs. She is the author of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (2007) and Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (1997). She is an editor of Judaism Since Gender (1997) and Impossible Images: Contemporary Art after the Holocaust (2003). Her current project, “Evidence as Archive” builds on her prior work in feminist theory and Holocaust studies to ask what material evidence held in police storage can teach us about the role of all those other objects collected in the Holocaust museums, libraries, and archives. This project is a meditation on what it means to do justice to traumatic legacies through an engagement with such objects.

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