A famous Jewish writer collected 4,000 tiny Eastern European dreidel

Arthur Kurzweil first came across amulets and dreidel, which were unearthed by treasure hunters during a trip to his father’s hometown in Poland. Now he has collected thousands of them. Photo by Shira Hanau / JTA; Background courtesy of Kurzweil.

Even when Arthur Kurzweil is sitting alone in his study, he does not feel alone. After all, he has the dreidel – all 4,000.

Kurzweil, 70, is a prolific author and editor who has written books on Judaism and magic and his car trips with Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz, as well as the Kabbalah and Torah parts in the “… for Dummies” series.

His most significant contribution to Jewish publishing, however, is likely to be his books and teachings on Jewish genealogy: he has extensively documented his efforts to trace his own family ancestry, including the many branches broken by the murder of family members in the Holocaust.

The dreidel, which were pulled out of the earth across Eastern Europe, represent an extension of this work, Kurzweil told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency amid the collection in his home on Long Island.

“I look at it … and I guess what’s the story of it? When was the last time someone played that game? ”He said, adding,“ I wonder what that person’s fate was ultimately ”.

Kurzweil is not only surrounded by Dreidel. Quietly and in collaboration with Eastern Europe’s large treasure hunt community, he has amassed an extensive collection of Jewish objects from all over Eastern Europe. While Holocaust museums and concentration camps confront visitors with mountains of shoes and glasses worn by Jews who were about to be killed, Kurzweil lives with memories of the life they lived.

In addition to the tiny tin and lead dreidel, which are clearly intended for children, Kurzweil has also collected boxes with kosher metal seals that would have been placed on food packages to show their kosher status; Dozens of pins that would have been worn by members of Jewish youth and Zionist organizations; and coin-sized metal disks that synagogues would have distributed to people called to the Torah.

The collection also includes amulets, which while not a typical Jewish practice today, were historically used by Jews to ward off various diseases. Some of the amulets in the collection contain a prayer to protect the wearer from diphtheria. Others were worn to protect the wearer from the dangers of childbirth.

The scope and breadth of the Kurzweil collections paint a unique portrait of everyday Jewish life in Eastern Europe from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the beginning of the Holocaust. This makes them unique in the context of Jewish history and art collections that tend to focus on ritual objects, such as Hanukkah menorah, Shabbat candlesticks or ornately decorated spice jars, which are used in the Havdala ritual at the end of Shabbat.

“It shows everyday shtetl in its simplest and most common form and, if you will, when things were still going relatively well,” says Beth Weingast, art and Judaica appraiser who examined the collection for Kurzweil a few years ago.

William L. Gross, a collector of Judaica and Jewish art in Tel Aviv for almost half a century, owns a large collection of amulets himself. He said he had never heard of a collection of everyday objects as large as Kurzweil’s.

“It is a marvelous material because it is the object of the normal, normal Jew, not the aristocracy, not the merchant class, but the people. And that is of the utmost importance, ”said Gross.

John Ward, who heads the silver division at Sotheby’s, also said Kurzweil’s collection of judaica, made from cheap metals like tin and lead, is significant. “Getting that focus on the folk art and the utilitarian side would be the only thing I’ve heard of,” he said.

While working with objects made from expensive materials most of the time, Ward found that a collection like Kurzweil’s would tell an important story about Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is something very poignant about the idea that these were things that were used and loved and taken out on holidays and then essentially turned into junk,” he said.

Of course, the objects didn’t become garbage so much, but were turned into garbage by the Nazis and their collaborators.

“Based on where they were found, my assumption is that most of the people involved with these items were murdered in the Holocaust. In a way, the collection becomes a Holocaust memorial, ”said Kurzweil.

Kurzweil first acquired an unearthed amulet in the 1970s during a trip to Przemy l, Poland, a town where several members of his family had lived before World War II.

“When I saw my first amulet, my first pendant, it just attracted me. I was shocked that they still exist underground. I didn’t want them to go away or to be thrown away, ”said Kurzweil.

But it wasn’t until 2015, when Kurzweil traveled to Warsaw on his way to his father Dobromyl’s hometown, that he found out about the tiny Dreidel. The friend who showed him the objects introduced him to a metal detector hobbyist who is part of a network of treasure hunters who comb through regions of Eastern Europe devastated during the war.

The hobbyists Kurzweil encountered are primarily looking for gold and silver coins for sale, while others are more specifically looking for Nazi paraphernalia, as described in “Plunder”, the most recent book by Menachem Kaiser. Few are interested in clinging to rubble, the value of which is largely sentimental and mostly limited to Jews.

“All of a sudden, I had a network of people of my own who weren’t really looking for Judaica, but they know there’s a guy in New York who’s interested in this stuff and they contact me,” Kurzweil said.

For some of the hobbyists, Kurzweil said, it obviously made sense to send him the found Judaica objects, often only for postage, and thus to interact with a living Jew. “They like the fact that they are doing something that will save the remains of the Jewish community,” he said.

Relationships with people in Eastern Europe are also important for Kurzweil. Kurzweil has traveled to Dobromyl 10 times and has met some of the people who live there over the years. In 2017, he even donated a playground to the city and raised over $ 22,000 to buy supplies for the local school.

“Thanks to everyone who made this possible,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page for the school’s fundraiser. “I stand in front of my father’s birthplace and whisper each of your names to me. It is a privilege to help children – all over the world – learn. “

If the items Kurzweil collects build a bridge between him and the story, Kurzweil’s donations to the Dobromyl children are ingrained in his desire to correct the relationships between those who have hated each other in the past.

“The reason I wanted to build a playground was because it was innocent children,” Kurzweil said. “If it had been the other way around, they would have been my neighbors. I don’t want to inherit hatred and bitterness. “

The city’s mayor and the English teacher, who serves as an interpreter for Kurzweil on his visits, send him Rosh Hashanah cards every time. He hopes to visit again someday.

“The Lubavitch Rebbe once said that if you come across something and think you can fix it, fix it,” Kurzweil said. “When I got there I thought I could fix it up a little.”

What exactly the future holds for the Kurzweil collections is unclear. For now, he’s content to endure her presence while he works on his memoirs on his family’s history, including his father’s pre-war life in Dobromyl. But he’s wondering whether a museum should take them up one day – and he wonders if that would even be possible.

Weingast says, for example, that the collection is of value precisely because the objects it contains have no value in themselves.

“He has put together a fantastic collection of everyday objects,” said Weingast of Kurzweil. “The items are free, they have no value. But the hassle is paying people to find them and shipping them and tricking people into not throwing them away, not just throwing them away. ”


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