Judaica and Memorabilia Connect Us To the Past
A date in a calendar is strengthened when history can be held and cherished.
Last week, Israel remembered the Holocaust, and this week marked Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and Independence Day. Yet all too often, these significant events become just days in a calendar. What if there was something that could tie us more directly to history through shared lineage, real memories, and relatable histories?
This is what draws me to the auctions of Jonathan Greenstein, one of the few international facilitators of Judaica-only memorabilia auctions. Through his auction house, he puts real history on display and in the hands of people who can carry on the memories.
Judaica collectibles carry the memories of a person, families, an era, and even a people. A single piece can tell so much about a period of time through its design, its markings, and the places that it’s been. Through these pieces, we can become more connected to our ancestors, and lessen the generational gap.
Greenstein’s love for collecting came as a teenager when he worked in an antique shop to make some money, and he began to appreciate the history and education he gained. He started buying small pieces that attracted him. Before he knew it, he had amassed quite a collection of Jewish ritual items, such as silver Kiddush cups and menorahs found buried in some of the darkest parts of Eastern Europe.
Today, he operates on a larger scale, finding items hidden or neglected all over the world, such as his Passover Compendium, forged in the 1800s in the Ukraine by artists stemming from the Ruzhin-Sadigura Chassidic dynasty. This cauldron-shaped silver piece has three removable circular dishes, each to hold handmade round matzo, as there was no machined matzo back then. Each drawer is lined with blue velvet and has a stopper attached to the pull tab so they do not slide out when tilted. Each drawer is inscribed with Biblical verses related to Passover and engraved with artistic foliage. The other sides are adorned with scenes from the Exodus. The main body is realistically crafted with wings, and the upper removable plate contains six smaller plates, each supported by an eagle. Each one of the six plates is intended to hold different foods required to be displayed for the Seder.
I mention the decorations because the intricacies speak to us about the period and the people; the piece is described as one of the “most magnificent pieces of Judaica to be in private hands.”
Greenstein’s upcoming auction on May 17 carries a collection from a man who was once an optometrist to the stars — Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer himself has an American dream story. He was born in Ohio, served in the US Army, and practiced optometry in Cleveland until he moved to Los Angeles in 1974, when he was contacted by the props master for Spelling Goldberg Productions (Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg), and asked to provide special glasses for their television shows. That helped him become noticed by other celebrities, who he ultimately ended up servicing.
While serving and traveling abroad, Oppenheimer wound up in Bucharest, Romania and visited the Great Synagogue that still had WWII era damage. In it, he saw a small room off the main sanctuary that had some ceremonial objects — most of which he did not recognize. He made a point to discover what they were, and has been collecting Jewish memorabilia ever since. He is particularly proud of a silver spice box he found in the form of a peacock.
Collectibles have financial value, but they also connect us in a real way to the people and time, enabling us to be active participants in memorializing history. They help us connect to a previous world — just as Greenstein did as a teenager, and Dr. Oppenheimer discovered in his youthful travels. Jewish history is rich with people and stories dating back as far as any recorded history, and art and artifacts make for excellent memorials and great inspirations that stay with us, year-round.