Jewish Ritual Rescue

Jewish Ritual Rescue  
What Happens to Judaica When Our Kids Don’t Want It?

Last year in a local Goodwill store I found a very old Kiddush cup. It sat on a shelf crowded with an assortment of pewter and silver goblets and was so tarnished that I nearly missed the inscriptions. Engraved on the cup, complete with a delicate Magen David, were the names of three generations of Bar Mitzvah boys and the dates of their celebrations. The cup was nearly 100 years old. Sad as it was to see where this treasure ended up, my Ritual Rescue instinct kicked in and I brought the Kiddush cup home.

Apparently I’m not alone. In her article “My Obsession with Buying Abandoned Jewish Objects,” author Linda Pressman describes how she found herself immersed into what I like to call “Ritual Rescue,” – saving discarded Jewish ritual items.  

Pressman writes, “It first happened right after I got married. I was at a rundown antique mall and there it was: someone’s abandoned brass menorah, with Hebrew written on it, and made in Israel. The sales tag said only, ‘Candelabra.’ I bought it.”

I can relate.  In my 20 years as a rabbi a majority of those years were spent serving older Jewish congregants. Many of these elderly Jews had collected dozens of Jewish ritual items, from drawers full of Bar and Bat Mitzvah commemorative yarmulkes to ornate Shabbat candelabra, Havdalah sets and wine-stained, deeply creased tallitot  so many things… that prior to making the journey to the local Good Will store, often ended up in my hands.

“I’m downsizing,” said Ellen, a 90 year old who was about to move into a retirement community. “I tried to give my husband’s tallis and tfillin to my son, but he didn’t want them. I just couldn’t throw them into the give-away box, so I brought them to you.”

And Ellen wasn’t the only one. Over the years Jewish families have brought me Shabbat candlesticks, ornate Chanukah menorahs, battered Kiddush cups, and  a shoebox filled with an entire collection of mezuzot from around the world! And even though I’m running out of storage space, with love and gratitude I accept them all.

Like author Linda Pressman, I also scour the Goodwill and second hand stores and when I find a hand engraved Kiddush cup ( one said, “Baruch ben Yosef 1955”), a “Shalom” wall plaque or a tattered matzah cover, I buy them all.

Ironically, as a board member for an international Jewish organization, Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), I have the opportunity to assist emerging Jewish communities in isolated areas of the world.

In this capacity I am able to send discarded American Judaica to congregations like those in Uganda, Madagascar and Nicaragua. In addition I often bring these items to members of my own congregation in southern Italy – all of whom are enormously appreciative to receive them.

But these gifts do not solve the problem of what to do about family Judaica that children or grandchildren don’t want.

For those of us who are holding on to Bubby’s seder plate or Zayde’s tallit there are some steps we can take to keep our Jewish family heirlooms in our families. Start by taking your Judaica out of the box, freshen it and display it in your home. That means taking Zayde’s tallis to the dry cleaner or polishing the brass Chanukah menorah.

When your Judaica looks loved and cared-for, your pride in your heritage will be obvious to your family. Then you can take time to explain the significance of this displayed Judaica to your grandchildren and great grands.

For example, weave a story around Zayde’s tallit:  “I remember when your great grandfather wore this on Rosh HaShanah. I liked to sit next to him and play with the fringes…”  Personalize your Judaica with happy memories and your family members will want to embrace those memories by bringing the long lost Judaica into their homes.  

If you have no one to whom you can pass on a treasured Kiddush cup, seder plate or spice box, share your items with a local synagogue that welcomes Jews by Choice.  Often someone who has converted to Judaism does not have family treasures and would appreciate bringing your Judaica into her/his family.

What about that 100 year old Kiddush cup? Now I use it for Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, encouraging our Italian boys and girls whose families are reclaiming their Jewish roots, to lift the cup, make the blessing and give new life to a tradition one family has lost, but for others has been rediscovered and embraced.

In ancient times our sages encouraged “hiddur mitzvah,” which means taking the time and making the effort to enrich our Jewish ceremonies with the most beautiful ritual objects we can find.

Many of these gorgeous items now hide in storage bins or sit forlorn on second hand store shelves, just waiting for a family’s attention once more. From your table to your descendants’ table, to a convert’s table to the rickety table in an emerging congregation – ritual rescue can bring our Judaica back to life.

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