About a decade ago, Daniel Miller (2008) published an ethnography of objects in a London neighborhood, entitling it The Comfort of Things. I leafed through it (maybe now's the time to actually read it), and wanted to push back. Comfort or prison?
I come from a family of hoarders. My father bought and sold small, often slightly damaged antiquities at armory shows and flea markets. His small shop was piled to the top with cartons, costume jewelry necklaces hanging from old swords attached to the ceiling. On his jewelry workbench, piles of gold filings settled in between coffee cups of half-polished rings marinating in gray ammonia. When, as a teenager, I left home for summer camp, I would return to find my bedroom invaded by boxes and cartons of bric-a-brac—engulfed by the ooze that ate New York. My mother's closet drawers burst with rarely worn dress clothes, mite-damaged fur stoles, and generations of nylon stockings. Occasionally, in one of my father's fits of rage, he would dump its contents on the floor, crying, "What this? Museum!"
My grandmother, Omama, would collect coupons from Sloan's, Associated, Key Food, in search of the cheapest container of orange juice. The space behind the kitchen was the maid's room, though the days of maids were gone before my time. ("I would trade in ALL the electric appliances for one good shikse," she would reminisce.) It was piled high with yellowing Tupperware, bits of string, cardboard handles of clothes boxes, and Sloan's paper bags. My grandfather's bedroom table was covered with pages torn out of last month's Sunday New York Times for future reading, some with basic financial counsel for his luftmensch grandson. Another drawer brimmed over with tax statements that he would spread out on the dining room table on Sunday mornings, and shuffle for a few hours until lunchtime, when he would replace the piles in several of Omama's plastic shopping bags. My brother swears by shopping bags. One for his work documents and aluminum foil-wrapped sandwich, one for his tefillin, maybe another for the neighborhood Jewish newspapers.
I consider myself a moderate collector, though nursing a romantic dream of sparse cleanliness. If some people are haunted by a primal fear of abandon, I worry about being choked under a pile of things. No air. My adolescent rebellion was against what I saw as the clutter of bourgeois halachic Jewish life. Meat and milk dishes, three plates under every Kiddush cup, the smell of cholent simmering on tepid hotplates, filling the airtight room in winter, as the radiators sputtered and hissed. In my mythology, the parents of my school colleagues had set them on the train rails, and they were now inexorably bound in the airtight car for the American dream and reproduction of baalebatish Orthodox Judaism. For most of them, it worked. Fifty years later, they're doing what they said they'd do in eighth grade. For me—no air.
When I first visited Seoul thirty-five years ago and stayed in the house of a Korean family, I was fascinated by its whiteness. Seven people lived in a small apartment, but after breakfast, the low folding table was stored away, night bedding folded and tucked into chests behind sliding doors, and with the spreading of bamboo mats, the bedrooms became living rooms. At Buddhist funerals, the dead man's clothes and possessions are burned.
I now find myself homebound in corona-struck southern France. Confined—confiné in French. Like confiture: sticky, sealed stuff. With my wife, in a full but comfortable apartment, far away from home. Pesach is around the corner. No way we can do Pesach cleaning, a cleaning I remember from childhood as the scrubbing of rarely visited corners, and the descent of Pesach dishes from the roach-infested upper shelves of the kitchen cupboard. Ammonia, cartons of pots and pans everywhere, and finally, the smell of burnt bread and roasted eggshells. The cleaning my mother loved to hate: "I will never, never make another Pesach again for the rest of my life."
Ten days to go till Pesach. We have planned to connect with our children and friends abroad by broadcasting the Seder on Zoom. I will send them written instructions on how to prepare the Seder table when I'm not there to do it. No, it won't be the same.
Friday morning. Like Nadia Seremitakis, who found herself seized by the urge to harvest wild herbs from the lawn with her pocket knife, I need to buy matzot. Maybe there won't be any left next week. Maybe they'll tighten the rules so we can't leave home. If I buy matzot, Pesach will come again.
I leave the house to walk to the kosher grocery, a small darkened building in an alley across the street from the synagogue. You need to know where it is to find it. Five brands of matzot are packed on the shelves. Sephardi matzot from Paris, flavored with orange water. Thin perforated matzot from Alsace, and familiar plastic jars of powdery gray matze mehl. And those that traveled here from home: Aviv, Rishon, Yehuda—the tottering pyramids of oversize boxes familiar from Jerusalem supermarkets in the heated frenzy of Passover food shopping.
The owner and cashier, dyed hair half hidden by her surgical mask, asks us to wait outside for our turn. The store is too crowded for corona times and she has elderly family at home. I buy two big boxes of matzot, salami, wine, matzo meal. The rest, I am now assured, will wait. We're not the only ones in this town preparing for Pesach.
I see a tray of fresh-baked hallot in the corner. Never mind the organic bread already purchased. I take two braided hallot for this evening. If our children are Skyped in for Kiddush this evening, it will look good. I get home and place the hallot, the matza, and the wine on the counter, underneath the French street signs that line the kitchen wall. The comfort of things.
Miller, Daniel. 2008. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge, UK: Polity.