Many years later I can still remember why I, as a fifteen year old, decided to become a historian. My family lived and traveled abroad when I was child and I keep in my mind's eye the views from various bedroom windows: the beautiful oak tree I saw from my bed in our suburban New England home; pigeons free-falling from a facing apartment building in Paris' 14th arrondissement; the wall topped with shards of broken glass surrounding the house we inhabited briefly in Mexico City's Zona Rosa; the red roses blooming, to my amazement, in Montevideo's mild winter, and, the feet, wheels, and occasional horses' hoofs that passed by the basement flat in London. Not only did these intimate views, perceived at liminal moments of rising and retiring, change with each new home, but also the landscape traversed on my trajectory to school. In some places I followed paths through a built environment little more than a century old; in others, that daily route took me in front of buildings standing for seven or eight hundred years. In some places the human-made cohabited with the natural world, in others it overwhelmed it. Not only were the built-environments very different but so, too, were their inhabitants' eating and dressing habits, ways of moving their bodies, and how they decorated their homes.
I came, as an adolescent, to wonder about the impact of these different views, different paths, different material cultures and bodily practices. I went looking for the answers to naïve questions: Were Europeans somehow different from Americans because their built environment was so old? Because there was no more wilderness? How did quotidian encounters with a cathedral influence a person's sense of time, of place, and of God? Did kids who grew up protected by aggressive glass or looking through barred windows become different from those who saw trees or plummeting pigeons? Why did each national school system have its unique style of handwriting that it insisted all students learn? How was it that each nation's natives could almost always identify the foreigners? And, above all, why did they feel so strongly about the importance of these small differences?
It was to answer those naïve, but also very difficult, questions that I became a historian. Since I was fascinated by difference (rather than seeking roots) I chose to study a remote past – that of medieval Europe. The medieval world's distance from the contemporary United States was one source of attraction, another was that of the relative paucity of written sources. That scarcity encouraged medievalists to be more eclectic in their source base than most of those who work in more recent epochs. The close study of architecture, archaeology, music, and fine arts were all clearly and unquestionably legitimate, and there was considerable space for (careful and responsible) imaginative labor.
My experience working as a cabinet- and furniture-maker while engaged in feminist and labor politics pushed me in new directions when I decided to return to academic life. I had become intrigued with the gendered division of labor, the impact of mechanization and commercialization on artisanal work, and the meaning and place of the aesthetic in people's lives. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see the Introduction to my Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France.) While maintaining my commitment to working in a wide variety of sources – particularly material culture – I became a specialist in modern history, with a focus on feminism and the politics of everyday life. In recent years, responding to contemporary events, changes in my life, and to emerging scholarship, I have found those interests expanding to include the dynamics of minority--both Jewish and post-colonial--cultural formations in Europe.
Marrying Tom Holt, an African American historian who has spent most of his life thinking and writing about, and working for, racial justice, and raising our daughter together, have caused me to engage questions of race in a new way. As a result of everyday life with my family, racism has gone from being an abstract wrong to a matter of personal injury and rage. My places of life and work – the United States, France, and Germany – have come to feel very different than when I lived there on my own and questions in their history that seem most urgent have changed accordingly. My research agenda in the last decade has thus been driven by my attempts to grasp the dynamics of the everyday constructions of racial difference in Europe and the United States.
Finally, the experience of living on both sides of the Atlantic with a Jewish child, with a daughter for whom I have tried to shape a Jewish education that made sense to her, to her father, and to myself, has also provoked a new set of reflections on contemporary Judaism in a comparative framework. That has entailed analyzing anti-Semitism in relation to anti-Judaism as well as other forms of racism.