Building a Home

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler's family menorah alongside her beloved books, in her new home.

This past spring, I had the chance to write my family’s Haggadah, and spent many joyful hours finding feminist additions to a well-trodden story. As I set the table alongside my parents, my mother remarked that she intended to give one of our family Seder plates to me, when I had a household of my own. “Come to think of it,’ she said, “you can take it if you want to host Passover next year.” I blanched. Sure, I was moving out—but was I going to be running a household? I had already cultivated a lot of anxieties about moving far away by the time my mother offered me the Seder plate, but from her gesture blossomed another, gnawing fear: were Jewish rituals important to me, independent of my family’s established setting? Furthermore, what constitutes a household?

As a former Gender Studies major, I have a lot of hang-ups about the concept of building a home. I loved cultivating my own space in college, especially when I was able to live alone as a senior. Nothing ever felt out of place, because the entirety of the space was mine to spread into. With the advent of a serious relationship, my desire to live in perpetual independence clashed with my wish to bring my partner into the fold. Though we both envisioned creating a home where our needs could be met equally, many people on the periphery had different ideas about the future dynamics of our shared living space. There was the wayward great-aunt who worried aloud that I didn’t have the cooking skills to keep myself—much less a partner—alive (patently untrue). A family friend assured me that moving in together was “just practice anyway” (since we aren’t engaged, evidently the move is superficial). I pushed back against these unwanted commentaries, but still found them readily available to bounce around my mind when I had quiet moments alone.

A few weeks after Passover, my mother uncovered my father’s illustrated copy of the Bible, given to him when he became a bar mitzvah. She left it on the kitchen table while I was out of the room, before taking a phone call and stepping outside. I returned to the kitchen and froze, concerned that holy books had started appearing seemingly out of nowhere. I lugged the text upstairs to my bedroom, and instead of working on a packing list, spent a few hours poring over what exists largely as a relic in my intensely secular home.

It’s illustrated, with glossy pages marking the Exodus from Leviticus. It’s heavy, too—the spine made an audible crack as I spread it open on the carpet. I traced pages and imagined my Dad as a kid, barely a teenager, probably floored by the solemnity of receiving a four-pound Bible on one of the most overwhelming days of his life. It occurred to me, as I examined the cracks in the rigid binding, that I didn’t have a book like this—I didn’t become a bat mitzvah, and only began to really embrace Judaism and my cultural background as an undergraduate.

This isn’t to say I don’t have echoes of Judaism in the spaces I’ve cultivated for myself: I have a treasured menorah, brought down each winter to be lit alongside the family candles (and illegally, in my dorm room). I have a stack of Jewish cookbooks, inscribed with care on the occasion of my twenty-first birthday—to Justine. If food is love, consider this a study in Adoration-Dad. When I relocated from North Carolina to Arizona, these books made the bumpy journey with me, underneath stacks of novels and haphazardly folded sweaters I absolutely didn’t need to bring to the desert in July. Before setting anything else up in my new apartment, I gave the cookbooks their own space in the kitchen. Even if I won’t open them until the holidays, running my fingers along their spine on my way to the fridge instantly brings me back to my childhood home.

Emma Goldman once said she’d rather have roses on her table than diamonds on her neck. Susannah Heschel brought oranges to the Passover feast, and my mother taught me from a young age that it was a sin to settle for cheap wine. I don’t know what kind of Jewish household I’m going to run yet—but I do know the joys of tradition, both old and new, are hardwired in me. As I prepare to observe the new year this September, I’m satisfied that things are beginning to come together. Rosh Hashanah is all about fresh starts, built on the foundations of our past. To that end, I may not have the right pan to make the bundt cake my mother usually creates this time of year, but I have her recipe and I have the drive. Somehow or another, an apple honey cake will find its way to my table—it just remains to be seen what shape it’ll take.

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How to cite this page

Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. "Building a Home." 6 September 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 4, 2023) <>.

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