By Jonathan Greenstein
The practice of Judaism commands a variety of ceremonies throughout the calendar year. Many of these rituals involve the performance of certain physical acts in conjunction with prayer. The majority of these revolve around the Jewish Sabbath which takes place from sunset Friday night to sunset Saturday night. The rest are performed on special holidays such as Chanukah and Passover or during life cycle events such as circumcisions and marriage. Some take place in the synagogue, but the majority of them are based in the home.
Each of these various ceremonies has traditional objects that are usually associated with them. For instance, in many Jewish homes the Sabbath is welcomed by reciting the prayer of the Kiddush which is iterated over wine in a special silver cup. On Saturday nights, we bid farewell to the Sabbath with the Havdalah ceremony in which, like Kiddush, we recite a prayer over wine in a special cup. In addition, another blessing is made over clove spices, usually housed in a special decorative container known as a spice tower, to mark the departure of the Sabbath. On Chanukah, we kindle the menorah, on Passover we use a Seder dish to hold the symbolic foods during the festive meal, and on Purim, where the Jews celebrate the anxious victory over evil in ancient Persia, we read the Megillah scroll. In Judaism there is a concept called hiddur mitzvah, which literally means “beautification of the mitzvah (ritual).” This concept encouraged the use of art to enhance the ritual objects used in the ceremonies previously described. The more common term for a Jewish ritual object is “Judaica.” Judaica can be any object that is used in a Jewish ritual, or can sometimes be a secular item that is decorated with Jewish motifs.
Throughout Jewish history, since medieval times, there has not been a particularly Jewish style of art. Being somewhat nomadic, Jews have adapted to whatever country and time they found themselves in and, therefore, adopted the host society’s style of art. For instance, if one were to find an antique menorah in Germany around 1910, it would most likely be in art nouveau or art deco form. If we found it in Poland, it would tend to be folksier, in line with the craftsmanship of the time.
The most common Judaica objects to collect are Kiddush cups, spice boxes, Chanukah menorahs, Purim scrolls, and silver used to decorate the Torah.
Kiddush cups are the most basic Jewish ceremonial object and therefore one of the most popular items to collect within the field of Judaica. The wine cup is symbolically and spiritually rich for the Jews. When a cup is raised in a Jewish ceremony, G-d is honored. His day of rest is proclaimed, the division between the Sabbath and the rest of the week is recognized, a biblical holiday is ushered in, a Bris Milah is performed or perhaps a wedding is taking place. The Kiddush cup, thereby, becomes a sanctified object, no longer part of the mundane, pedestrian world but rather belonging to a holy one. Even when the cup is not filled for the performance of a holy obligation or ritual, the Jew will say “L’chaim,” “To life,” ever grateful to our Creator for granting us life.
Ukrainian and Polish Judaic objects are made of very low-grade quality. The Jewish population had been very poor and the price of good silver was prohibitive. Most items are marked with a 12 hallmark. This represents 12 of a possible 16 loth (percentage), or about 75% silver, the rest being alloys such as copper, nickel, and other less expensive available metals. Often, objects were made of even lower grades silver and are unmarked. In addition, you will find that these cups are often somewhat smaller than the cups that come from Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy and other European countries. This may be indicative of not only an effort to conserve silver but also of an effort to conserve wine, using the minimal amount allowed by Jewish law to sanctify the Sabbath through Kiddush. Wealthy individuals, prominent members of the community, and rabbis with large courts often had larger, more beautifully designed cups commissioned for them, knowing full well that they could easily afford to fill these heftier cups.
Kiddush cups of Eastern Europe have a very distinct style. According to the custom of the times, engravings of mythological creatures, lions of every style and position, birds, unicorns, and signs of the zodiac might decorate the standard Kiddush cup. If one would look at a tombstone from the Ukraine or Poland, these same overall designs would be found.
The value of a cup is generally based on age, decoration, and a Hebrew inscription. The older, more heavily decorated and inscribed cups are of greater value. A simple nineteenth-century silver cup from Poland without a Hebrew inscription would be valued at about $300. Once it is inscribed with a blessing, a previous owner’s name or another epithet, the price quickly increases to $2,000 – $10,000. That’s why an expert is needed to make sure the inscription is real. I examine each cup with a magnifying glass to see how the valley of the engraving has oxidized over time, as well as making sure that the Hebrew style of writing is appropriate to the time and place. It would be a “no brainer” to discern that a Ukrainian cup with a Germanic style of Hebrew engraving is a fake.
Spice boxes, known in Hebrew as besamim boxes, are probably the second most popular Judaica objects to collect. As the Sabbath ebbs away on Saturday shortly after sundown, Jews perform the Havdalah ceremony that entails a blessing over wine and fire as well as spices. Jewish law does not mandate a certain type of container for these spices, so artistic creativity throughout the ages has run rampant.
Early German spice towers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are usually in the shape of a tower usually modeled after a building standing in the town of its creation. The typical tower has a round base with a rectangular or square body, carved out with windows or engraved with brick like designs. They have doors that open that allow for the insertion of sides and are topped by cone shaped upper portions and topped by a flag. Sometimes, they have four or more bells hanging.
One will also find mid-19th spice boxes in the shape of small locomotives, small fish with scales and removable heads, houses, and so on. One of the decorations of early German and polish spice boxes that send prices through the roof at auction is human figural ornaments. When there are human figures added to the balcony or periphery of a spice box, values increase tenfold. A filigree spice container made in Lemberg in 1717 fetched $337,000 at auction as it had eight gilded human figures all around it. Without theses figures, the value is in the $35,000 range. We bought it to display at our gallery. Our feeling at the time was that it was undersold and the true value is in the $550,000 range.
Chanukah lamps and menorahs touch the heart, and as such are another popular category of the Judaica market. While only a minor holiday in Europe, Chanukah became a larger holiday with Jews in America. The holiday of Chanukah celebrates the 2200 year old victory of the Maccabees over the occupying Greek Assyrians that led to the rededication of the Temple. Jews memorialize the miracle of only one day’s worth of oil burning in the Temple’s menorah for eight days by lighting a Chanukah lamp, or menorah for eight nights. Although Jewish law mandates that the menorah has eight even lights, the rest of the design of the lamp is up to the artisan.
Since the majority of European Jews were very poor not everyone owned their own menorah. When they did, it was usually made of brass or pewter, which is a less expensive metal than silver. Silver lamps are often very ornately decorated with animals, organic designs, and sometimes figures such as an ancient Macabees. Like any other form of Judaica, the older, larger, and more ornate examples fetch bigger numbers at auction.
The term menorah and the term Chanukah lamp are often used interchangeably. A menorah, for the most part is a free standing candelabra with eight branches or arms that extend evenly out to allow for the insertion of candles or oil. There is usually a separate arm that is removable that acts as the shammash (servant light that is used to light all the other candles). A Chanukah lamp usually has a back plate and can be mounted on the wall or can also be freestanding. Chanukah lamps usually have some sort of reflective nature to the back plate as well as deeply ornate decoration. Early menorahs from the 17th and 18th century are quite rare and often fetch top dollar at public auctions.
As there was never a “Jewish” style of art, artisans adopted and incorporated the artistic movements of the time and region into their work. We also often see nationalistic designs such as a double headed eagle added to these pieces. Most Galician and Eastern European models from the 18th and 19th centuries tend to be folksy in style. Stylized lions are the principle motif. This especially holds true for wall style Chanukah lamps. They were mostly hand made until the third quarter of the 19th century when machine made mass production in Warsaw took over for the most part. Makers such as Shmuel Skarlat, Ludwig Nast, Izaak Szekman and many others had shops in the commercial town of Warsaw and often copied each other’s designs. This period from the second half of the 19th century all the way until WWII saw massive repetition in style and motif. Palm trees, lions, birds and grapevines were some of the more popular decorations.
Another popular style of Chanukah lamp that we often see at auction is the “Baal Shem Tov” style. The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Chassidic movement that originated in Eastern Europe. Tradition holds that the Chanukah lamp that he used was made completely of filigree silver. There are varieties of this lamp with the larger more ornate models that are decorated with small silver animals achieving the highest prices. There is no direct proof that this model was actually used by the Baal Shem Tov; however, the legacy has survived nearly 300 years with all collectors using the term.
Collecting Judaica: What to Know
1. Don’t be a sucker. Buy authentic. When purchasing antique Judaica, either from a dealer or an auction house, it is imperative that the piece be deemed kosher. Unfortunately, because Judaic objects are so hard to find and is such a microcosm within the art and antique world, the catalyst to forge and fake is huge. If something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.
2. Go big or go home. Buy aesthetically pleasing pieces. While buying a historic piece is great, in my experience, I have seen the most beautiful pieces achieve the best prices. When you can purchase a rare and aesthetically pleasing piece it’s a win-win situation.
The more attractive and the more glorious a piece is, the more it will fetch at auction.
3. Buy 18th and 19th century pieces. The earlier a piece is, the more it’s going to fetch on the block. While a 19th century version of Dutch filigree Torah finials generally bring $30,000 or so at auction, 18th century usually hit $60,000 or so. If a piece of early 20th century Judaica is offered, it is essential to ensure that the piece is a hand made piece in true modernist style by a known master artisan.
4. Get yourself a “Rebbe.” Consult with a true expert. Most auction houses that sell Judaica have a Judaica expert on staff. One should question the expert as to why he feels that a piece is for certain antique and not a recent copy.
5. Spend time in museums with Judaica. Jewish museums around the world harbor some of the best pieces extant. There is no replacement for experience. You can be the world’s greatest silver expert and not understand Judaica. Only the constant visual inspection and handling of these precious objects will give you the skill set to buy safely.
6. Try to find the history of the piece. Objects that have descended in families or that have been sold and resold at auction over the span of years are more desirable than ones that just magically appear on the market.
Jonathan Greenstein is the president and expert-in-charge at J. Greenstein & Company, Inc. in Cedarhurst, New York. It is the country’s only auction house specializing in antique Jewish Ritual art, known as Judaica. An expert in antique Judaica for over 30 years, Jonathan has been featured on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, NBC News with Chuck Scarborough, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many others. He is also the author of “A Lost Art: Hand Made Silver Kiddush Cups of Eastern Europe,” and working on a second general textbook. He is currently starring in “Jewish Gilt with Jonathan Greenstein” on The Jewish Channel.