Jewish Gilt with Jonathan Greenstein is a wonderful new series on the Jewish channel that explores the precious artifacts treasured by Jewish families and the stories that go with them.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Greenstein about the show.
I’ve seen the episode of the show and I think it’s just great – so tell me how it all came about.
14 years old I get thrown out of a Jewish school, and I’m free at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and I take a job in an antiques store, somehow evolving over the next 30 years to become America’s antique Judaic expert and if you Google me I have probably 10,000 articles about antique Judaica. The story is obviously a lot deeper than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.
About a year ago, I was contacted by a TV producer in Los Angeles that wanted to put together a “Jewish Pawn Stars” or a “Jewish Storage Wars” about antique Jewish ritual art. But it would have meant me flying back and forth to L.A. constantly, so co-incidentally within a week The Jewish Channel which is located here in New York – Manhattan – they contacted me also, and both had the same brilliant idea literally within a week of each other.
I took the gig – I thought it would be fantastic, and it was local.
What I like best about the show is that it’s as much about the stories as it is about the value of the objects.
Absolutely, 100%. It’s never only just about money – I own other companies, other businesses, real estate firms and things like that. But Judaica – it’s a passion, it’s a love.
I love history in general, I love Jewish history in particularly obviously because I’m Jewish – so each and every time I get a piece in front of me it’s a whole life new experience. You have a life experience in your hands.
Many of the objects that come to you were treasures that were passed down in families and often hidden, and brought along when everything else was left behind, right?
Yes, that’s correct. Most of the items that survived the Holocaust came to this country between 1880 and 1917, during the wave of the big immigration before WWI.
Anybody that managed to get out of Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, obviously Germany, and any of those areas – any time after that really they were not allowed to take too many things because of communism. You know, they just didn’t allow anything to leave the country – if you left you left by yourself, and if you got lucky you didn’t get killed.
Obviously in the Holocaust, Hitler not only destroyed all of our people that were still living at the time but took each and every object of art and melted for the war effort. They melted brass, they melted silver, they melted iron, copper obviously – whatever small items were made of gold.
They even took Torah scrolls, which is the Old Testament, and they used them for leather, so Hitler not only succeeded in murdering 6 million Jews, but there wasn’t much left in Europe. That’s why these things are not only so interesting but so rare and valuable.
And you see a lot of the items that were found even in the poorest of homes – so that would be Sabbath candle holders and spice boxes?
Judaica really is any item – any tangible object that’s associated with the Jewish religion, you know, mainly revolving around the Sabbath. Our Sabbath is Friday night, Saturday night – Friday night we’ll welcome the Sabbath in by saying a prayer or a small sanctification over a glass of wine or grape juice, and that’s in a Kiddush cup. On Saturday night we dismiss the Shabbat – you know, the Sabbath, with a small little prayer over cloves, over fragrances, because we’re so sad that the Sabbath is leaving that we get to be invigorated and woken up, so we smell cloves. Sabbath candles are obviously on Friday night – we light the candles before we say the blessing, which also illuminates the home for the Sabbath.
Now, all of these three items could be made decoratively depending on where the Jew was living at the time – if he was living in Germany, let’s say in 1910, it was the art deco influence. If a Jew was living in Poland in the 1920’s it was much more a simplistic art. Jew’s never really had their own style of art – they’d just develop wherever they were living at a time.
Other objects of Judaica – the big ones are menorahs. Hanukkah is a very popular holiday towards the end of the year. Because it’s such a celebratory holiday, it’s usually very decorative and very beautiful.
Now, as the decorativeness increases that the value of these things increases significantly. Most Jews were very, very poor. It’s only when we came to this country that we were able legally to be allowed to try and make money. But back in the old country Jews were peasants, so to find something extravagant that was owned or commissioned or by a wealthy Jewish family is very rare.
And what are some of the objects in your family that have special meaning to you?
It’s interesting that you ask that. We’re Americans for close to six generations on one side, and seven generations on other. We moved from Vienna in the 1840s from what I’m told one side, and from Hungary or what was then the Austria-Hungarian Empire of in the 1870s. So over the course of generations we became very un-Jewish my family, just through assimilation and generations of nobody really caring. Both of my parents were born Jewish, but they just weren’t very observant. So there really was nothing left. Because we came here so early, just over the course of the last 100 or 150 years I guess it was lost, or sold, or just not cared about – which is something that we find constantly.
I have objects come to our market and we have objects that come to our gallery – you get people that have really either lost interest or have no need for the Judaic artefacts in their household. Because these items survived the wars, only through their escape to America – generally during the wave of great Jewish emigration, over the course of 100, 120, 130 years, a lot of times families assimilate.
You know, I bought a kiddush cup from a person the other day from a men whose father’s father was Jewish. These things just descended in their family – he had absolutely no use or no sort of emotional attachment to it. He just wanted to sell it.
So in America only a very small percentage or religious and observant, and most Jews in America are not traditionally observant of Jewish rituals. Many are attached to Jewish culture, but during the course of assimilation these things become available for sale.
I think that one of the things that makes these objects so intriguing is that they’re associated with rituals that did occur in the home, whether you’re talking about a seder plate or an etrog box or a mezuzah – those are the things that are in the home and not in the synagogue.
Mezuzahs are very collectable, but generally not very expensive. You could find an antique mezuzah selling for like $40 or $80, because it’s not really decorative. Most Jews that were living outside of the country who obviously had them on the doors, kind of hid them and recessed them in the doorway itself, not to attract too much attention. So not a lot has survived, however there was on artisan in the 1960s – Ilya Schor. He made mezuzahs out of silver and they become extremely rare and extremely collectable. I’ve sold those between $15,000 and $25,000 apiece.
Is it difficult because of the Holocaust and the many other expulsions of Jews over the world to get provenances and documentation on these pieces?
For the most part the answer is yes. When it comes to personal objects, the majority of them – the overwhelming majority of them come from homes right here in New York or in America. I just came back from L.A. – there’s a tremendous Jewish population there also. There’s over half a million Jews in California.
So most of the objects I come across either come from collections that have been there for dozens and dozens of years – recently we just bought a spice box for $337,000 from the Gustave Tuck collection. That provenance goes back to the 1920s, which was just awesome.
But anything that came out of Europe – it’s very difficult to tell where the provenance came from. Mostly the communities were completely destroyed and there was nothing left, you know? If you found a torah ornament, let’s say from Krakow, Poland, there’s nobody there to say who had this or who this belonged to. That just doesn’t exist.
So many of these things are in private collections and museum collections, and theoretically they’re “provenance-less.”
One thing I’ve always been very curious about – featured on the episode I saw was the guy who had that amazing, amazing collection that just went on forever. What is it that makes somebody a collector? What is that makes somebody want to have not just one spice box, but 25 spice boxes?
It’s a disease, it really is! They have a disease – it’s just a good disease! A person in my opinion is born a collector. When I was four years old my grandfather used to take me to an Aquaduct racetrack, and I used to go on the floor, collect the losing tickets and put them in order. You know, collecting is in nature – it’s people who are born to accumulate and collect.
But when it comes to the Jewish religion and the Jewish culture, people that may not necessarily be observant – they may not be religious, but they want to decorate their home with their heritage. They want to buy three spice boxes, four kiddish cups, and once you get the fourth one you kind of want that fifth example – one from Germany, one from Poland, one from the Ukraine, let’s get an example from Iraq, let’s get an example from Lithuania, you know. Many collectors burn out after five or six purchases, but then you have tremendous collections – like Michael Steinhardt. He’s selling his collection now actually, but he accumulated over 700 pieces over the course of the last 20 years of collecting.
You know, you find something that you’re attracted do that you don’t have, you buy it.