The Master of Judaica
by Jonathan Greenstein
I couldn’t let it happen. They were screaming at me: “Please don’t let me get melted down for my scrap value!” That’s how it all began 30 years ago. I wasn’t really connected to Judaism on the same level as I am now, but even as a 14 year-old yeshiva “reject” and rebellious public school kid, there was something about watching these holy silver Kiddush cups (ritual wine goblets) being melted down into globs of silver that just didn’t sit right with me.
As part of a deal that I negotiated with my parents — being that I was now in public school and free at 1pm — I took a job in an antique store in a neighborhood heavily populated by Jewish immigrants. At the time, silver was at an all-time high of $40 an ounce, and scores of little old Jewish ladies whose children had little connection to their Judaism, were bringing in their unwanted treasures, carried from the old country, to be scrapped. The owner of the store was not Jewish but he had a sweet and kind heart. We struck a deal whereby he would allow me to buy these little pieces of Jewish history at the same price that he had paid, because he understood that there was more to them than just metal.
After a couple of years working there, I had accumulated quite a few pieces of antique Judaica. Each piece came with its own family story of how it had survived and come to America, often similar to the story of its former owner. Years went by, and as many young men my age were running to movies, sports, and social events, I was visiting antique shows and flea markets, trying to snatch more pieces of Jewish history from dealer’s tables.
As time passed, I accumulated quite a few boxes of silver Judaica – some pieces I sold to other collectors, others I traded with collector friends that I had made during my quests. After a while, I become known as the person to sell silver and brass antique Judaica to. Years passed and I was able to buy more pieces at auctions and sell some of my duplicates, as well.
Even though I thought I was as emotionally connected to my pieces as anyone could be, they became even more meaningful when my children reached an age when I could tell them about the purpose and history of each precious piece. I explained to them that I had come from a “not yet so religious” family background and that’s why Jewish history was so important to me. Each time we would light a Chanukah menorah from a different time and place in Jewish history, I would explain to them what was happening in the world at the time the piece was created. For example, when I made Kiddush on a cup that was made in Nuremberg, Germany in the 1770’s, my son knew that this cup was created at about the same time as the American Revolution was taking place. History became real before his eyes!
Over the last 15 years or so, I have worked to become the American authority on Antique Judaica. About 10 years ago, I was asked to run a charity auction for a branch of Chabad, in which we placed some antique Judaic pieces. Many of the important items sold. From there I created the only auction house in the world solely devoted to the sale of antique Jewish ritual art. That was 9 years, 30 auctions and thousands of sold pieces ago. While I do this as a business and it clearly contributes to my family’s parnossah – income — I nevertheless have few greater pleasures than being able to connect my brothers and sisters to their rich Jewish history by helping them own these actual historical pieces. Anyone can go into a store and buy a new Kiddush cup. How much holier is it to make Kiddush on a cup that was used by Jews for 200 years?
When I explain to a client the history of a piece and I can sense his awakening appreciation of the unbroken chain of his heritage, I know that I made the right decision when I entered this business. Yes, there are great collections in many museums around the world, but the pieces cry out to be used rather than to be kept as relics of the past like animals in a zoo that are watched with fascination, and denied their true reason for existence. Although their preservation is of tantamount importance, it’s so sad to think that they will never actually be used, that nobody will ever have a spiritual experience with the item. It was certainly not the intention of the craftsman who made them or that of the original owner.
There are probably about 2000 collectors of antique Jewish ritual art in the world. Many of those collectors are casual, many active and several very passionate. People who have put money into quality antique Judaica over the years have seen tremendous returns on their investments, and as an added bonus, they were able to use the objects. A few weeks ago, we hosted our dear friends, the band Pey Dalid, as guests for the Shabbat meal. I made Kiddush (blessing on wine) and then explained to my wife and five children as well as to our musical guests that the cup from which I just drank was made in the Ukraine in a small town called Mikarev. The cup was created from silver coins given by the Rebbe (rabbi) of that town to a talmid, a student, who melted them down to make a cup of special “Shmirah silver”. It is engraved with this history. The Mikoriver Rebbe was the grandson of the Chernobler Rebbe. How much extra holiness did this cup have? How close to the 140 year-old history of this wonderful cup have I come? Is it possible that all of the people who used this cup during its long history were in the next world, “shepping nachas,” (experiencing enjoyment) knowing that it hadn’t been discarded or melted down for its scrap value?
What’s my point? When considering a major family purchase such as a menorah, a Kiddush cup, or Torah ornaments, one needs to consider whether you want to contribute to the unbroken chain of usage of an antique piece of Judaica or start your own by buying a new object. In my opinion…well, you know my opinion by now.
Where does one start collecting? Well, my auction house is one great place to start a collection of antique and artisan Judaica. Other places include various antique dealers in New York, some major auction houses that have antique Judaica auctions and sometimes on-line. However, one needs to be wary of unscrupulous Judaica dealers who often sell fakes and forgeries. True antique Judaica is very rare, as the Third Reich and its collaborators not only murdered our people, but also destroyed hundreds of years of Jewish history, melting down objects as scrap to be used in the war effort. The same people who ripped out gold teeth from their Jewish victim’s mouths plundered synagogues and private homes for anything of value. Most objects that have survived to this day have done so in one of three ways: Families that were able to emigrate from Europe before 1939, mainly during the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to America during the turn of the 20th century, were able to take pieces with them. Some pieces were saved in countries that were unaffected by the war. Thirdly, some pieces that were hidden by various non- Jews pop up on Ebay or in European antique stores.
It is imperative that you bring an expert, or at least someone who understands antique silver to your first purchase. We offer free inspections for all of our clients whether they purchase an object from us or not. In other words, we offer a free second opinion that is often so desperately needed. One of the biggest heart-breakers was when a good friend came back from Israel and called me as came off of the plane, telling me that he bought a 300 year old menorah for only $2000 or so. When he brought it to me, I wound up shattering his excitement from the entire trip when I told him that not only was it a forgery, but I told him where he bought it and who sold it to him. I have this knowledge only because my friends who had previously fallen prey to the same dealers alerted me. Israel is a great place to buy new artisan Judaica, but there is very little antique Judaica for sale there.
In August of 2010, I found the sweetest vacant location on Central avenue in the Five Towns. It used to be Blue Diamond jewelers. Completely finished with Oak walls and cabinetry, I thought that this would be the ideal spot to open an antique Judaica gallery. There was only one part missing. I needed someone that I could not only trust with hundreds of thousands of dollars in antique Judaica, but someone that I could trust to be honest and fair with my clients as well. This person also needed to have an eagle eye to detect fakes and forgeries to weed them out before they come to me for final approval.
Eliyahu Kugielsky was a Judaica dealer that I had dealt with for over thirty years. As my Rebbe, Reb’ Shlomo Carlebach would say, he was also the sweetest of the sweet and the holiest of the holy, both as an individual and as a business person. Sadly, he had passed away a few years ago. His son, Abe, and I had maintained both a business relationship and a friendship. I felt that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
I asked him to join me as the director of the gallery. We just knew we were the right fit for each other. Thank G-d he accepted. These days, our relationship is more like an older sibling/younger sibling than anything else. We’re a good team, always looking out for each other’s best interests, and we share identical philosophies that it is our duty to not only support our families through our livelihood, but to promote the collecting of quality, authentic antique Judaica. He is the face and the voice of the gallery, and I couldn’t be more at rest with anyone else.
Collecting Judaica is a wonderful way to connect to our heritage. By collecting, you achieve so many different objectives: You invest your money in a safe place; you can share time during the “hunt” with a loved one; you can come one step closer to the hundreds of years of our heritage; and most importantly you can fill your home with your own history. So many of our brethren decorate their homes with African or Oriental motifs, why not display our own proudly? Why not have walls of antique Torah shields instead of antique African masks?
This past Saturday night, we sang “hinei kel yeshuati” in Shlomo Carlebach’s infectious melody, while the souls and spirits of all those that previously used and owned the spice boxes, the bechers and the havdalah tray that were on the table sang along in spirit. In that moment, we were one with the past.
On this note, I hope to write regularly for The Algemeiner on Judaica, where I will evaluate submissions from readers. Please email me (information below) a picture and any information that you may have about a particular piece of Judaica. I will be happy to tell you what it is and what it is worth.
This first piece pictured above, is one that was submitted to me as a walk in to our gallery.
The owner wrote:
This menorah has descended in my family for at least 2 generations, can you tell me more about it?
The menorah that you have was made in Poland, approximately 90 years ago. It is made of silver. The quality of the silver is 87.5%, which is slightly less than the 92.5% here that we use in America. The design is pretty classical. It is a very pretty and valuable piece. It would sell for $6,000 – 8,000 at auction.
Jonathan Greenstein may be reached at 516 295 2931 or by email @ email@example.com