Homage to the synagogue gift shop

Homage to the synagogue gift shop

Ted Merwin
Ted Merwin

It all looked like clutter to me. One of my first decisions last year, as the newly hired executive director of a Baltimore synagogue, was to dispose of the bulky glass display cases that took up almost an entire wall of the corridor outside the auditorium where Shabbat services took place. But as soon as the cases were gone and their contents put in storage, the requests started trickling in. Did we have a yahrtzeit candle? Could we provide a kiddush cup? And didn’t we want to have a Judaica sale at the annual meeting?

I started to wonder: Did every self-respecting synagogue need a gift shop?

Joellyn Zollman, who lives in San Diego, wrote her doctoral dissertation at Brandeis on the history of synagogue gift shops. Gift-giving in general, she told me, became an important part of American culture in the 1930s. Yet it was not until after World War II, when Jews moved en masse to the suburbs and built massive new houses of worship, that the synagogue Judaica shop came into its own. “After the war,” she said, “there was a shift of focus from Americanizing Jews to Judaizing Americans. Once Jews had successfully acculturated into society, Judaism needed to be reintroduced into their lives,” with the synagogue gift shop as the go-to source for ritual items like mezuzot and challah cutting boards.

In the Conservative movement, Zollman noted, synagogue sisterhoods (which ran the gift shops) adopted as their bible Betty D. Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman’s 1940s manual, “The Jewish Home Beautiful,” which furnished the text and stage directions for a vivid synagogue pageant in which women sang holiday songs and presented a table laden for each holiday. For Chanukah, for example, the mandated color scheme was orange — the traditional hue of Chanukah candles in Eastern Europe — with the menorah to be surrounded with orange and green or blue flowers.

By setting out only the most elegant table linens, china, cut-glass, and sterling silver, Greenberg wrote, every Jewish woman could make “her home and her family table a thing of beauty as precious and as elevating as anything painted on canvas or chiseled in stone.”

Further, it was not just the dining room table that was expected to display Judaica, but the entirety of people’s homes and gardens. Once the State of Israel was established in 1948, synagogue gift shops fed the craze for olivewood candle holders, green patina ashtrays, “ancient coin” necklaces, and gladiolus bulbs that enabled American Jews to feel connected to the Holy Land in an age when few could afford to travel there in person. 

By the 1960s and ’70s, as many of the gift shop volunteers went into the work force and as synagogue affiliation rates fell, the gift shop declined. Beverly Penn, who now runs the Judaica shop at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, told me that she learned while working at the store at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital — one of the few remaining Jewish-sponsored hospitals in the country — to bring in leather goods, glasses cases, and other non-Jewish items to supplement the Jewish merchandise.

When he first started manufacturing his distinctive metal and fused-glass Jewish ritual items in the 1990s, Gary Rosenthal sold them almost exclusively through synagogue gift shops. By 2000, he was selling about half of his inventory through suburban Judaica stores. Now, he said, he can no longer depend on either to make a living. “People don’t buy as much Judaica as they used to,” Rosenthal lamented. “One family would collect menorahs, and they would own 10 of them. Now it’s hard to get them to buy even one.” Rosenthal’s company, located in Maryland, stays afloat by selling to large Jewish organizations like Chabad that commission a tzedakah box or other custom item to award to an honoree — or even to all the attendees — at a fund-raising dinner.

Today, of course, one can buy all varieties of Judaica online, including not just at Etsy (which specializes in crafts) but at the website of the Jewish Museum Shop, which retails “museum-quality” replicas of items from its collection; prices go up to $10,000 for a sterling silver menorah based on an early 18th-century one by Johann Adam Boller, a celebrated Christian silversmith in Frankfurt.

But for Cory Schneider, a former president of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, nothing beats making your own Judaica. Schneider teaches congregants at her synagogue (Neve Shalom in Metuchen) to weave their own Jewish ritual items on the shul’s loom. She observed that when a grandparent who is suffering from cancer helps to create a tallit for a grandchild’s bar mitzvah, “They won’t be there for the bar mitzvah, but they will be in that tallit. Every time that kid puts it on, he or she will think about who made it. It leaves an indelible stamp.”

Ted Merwin covers theater for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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