Jewish writer collects 4,000 tiny dreidels found by eastern Europeans

(JTA) – Even when Arthur Kurzweil sits alone in his study, he doesn’t feel alone. After all, he has the dreidels, the 4,000.

Kurzweil, 70, is a prolific author and editor who has written books on Judaism and magic and his car trips with Talmud scholar Adin Steinsaltz, as well as the Kabbalah and Torah installments of the series “… for dummies. “.

However, his most significant contribution to Jewish publishing may be his books and teachings on Jewish genealogy – he has extensively chronicled his efforts to trace his own family lineage, even along the many branches that were broken. when family members were killed in the Holocaust.

The dreidels, mined from the soil in Eastern Europe, represent an extension of that work, Kurzweil told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency amid the collection at his Long Island home.

“I look at them … and I think, what is the story of this? And when was the last time someone played that game? “he said, adding,” I wonder what this person’s fate ultimately was. “

It’s not just the dreidels that surround Kurzweil. In silence and in collaboration with the important community of treasure hunters in Eastern Europe, he has amassed a vast collection of Jewish artifacts unearthed throughout Eastern Europe. While Holocaust museums and concentration camps put visitors face to face with the piles of shoes and glasses worn by Jews who were about to be killed, Kurzweil lives with reminders of the lives they lived.

Dreidels (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

In addition to the small dreidels, made of pewter and lead and clearly intended for children, Kurzweil has also collected boxes of metal kosher stamps, which would have been attached to food packages to attest to their kosher status; dozens of pins that would have been used by members of Jewish and Zionist youth organizations; and metal discs the size of a coin that synagogues would have given to people called to the Torah.

The collection also includes amulets that, while not a typical Jewish practice today, were historically used by Jews seeking protection from various ailments. Several of the charms in the collection include a prayer to protect the wearer from diphtheria. Others were used to protect the user from the dangers of childbirth.

The size and breadth of Kurzweil’s collections paint a unique portrait of the everyday life of Eastern European Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until the beginning of the Holocaust. That makes them unique in the context of Jewish history and art collections, which more typically focus on ritual objects, such as Hanukkah menorahs, Shabbat candlesticks, or intricately decorated spice boxes used in the Havdalah ritual for end with Shabbat.

“It shows the everyday life of the shtetl in its most basic and ordinary form and, if you will, when things were going relatively well,” said Beth Weingast, an art and Judaica appraiser who examined the Kurzweil collection several years ago.

William L. Gross, a collector of Jewish and Jewish art in Tel Aviv for almost half a century, owns a large collection of amulets. He said he had never heard of a collection of everyday items as large as Kurzweil’s, noting that objects like the ones Kurzweil collected that speak of the everyday life of Jews in pre-war Eastern Europe remain. unfortunately little studied.

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

John Ward, who heads the silver department at Sotheby’s, also said that the Kurzweil de Judaica collection made from inexpensive metals like pewter and lead is significant. “Having this focus on the folk art and the utilitarian side, it would be the only one I’ve ever heard of,” he said.

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

“There is something very poignant about the idea that these were things that were used and loved and put out on vacation and then essentially turned to garbage,” he said.

Of course, the objects did not turn into trash as much as the Nazis and their collaborators turned them into it.

“My guess based on where they are located is that most of the people who got tangled up with these objects were killed in the Holocaust. So, in a sense, the collection becomes a Holocaust memorial, ”Kurzweil said.

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

“When I saw my first charm, my first pendant, it attracted me. I was surprised that they still existed underground. I didn’t want them to disappear or to be discarded, ”Kurzweil said.

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

Hobbyists Kurzweil has encountered are largely looking for gold and silver coins to sell, though others are looking more specifically for Nazi paraphernalia, as detailed in Menachem Kaiser’s recent book “Plunder.” Few are interested in clinging to debris whose value is largely sentimental and, for the most part, limited to Jews.

“Suddenly I had a network of people who weren’t really looking for Judaica, but they know there’s a guy in New York who’s interested in these things and they contact me,” Kurzweil said.

For some of the fans, Kurzweil said, the act of sending him the Judaica objects they found, often just for the cost of postage, and thus interacting with a living Jew was clearly significant. “They like the fact that they are doing something that is saving the remnants of the Jewish community,” he said.

And for Kurzweil, too, relations with the people of Eastern Europe are important. 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 more than $ 22,000 to buy supplies for the local school.

“Thank you to everyone who made this happen,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page for the school’s fundraiser. “Standing in front of the house where my father was born, I read each of his names in a whisper. What a privilege it is to help children, anywhere in the world, to learn ”.

If the objects Kurzweil collects act as a bridge between him and history, Kurzweil’s donations to Dobromyl’s children are firmly rooted in his desire to correct relationships between those who hated each other in the past.

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

The mayor and the town’s English teacher, who acts as Kurzweil’s interpreter when he visits, send him cards every Rosh Hashanah. He hopes to visit us again one day.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that if you find something and you think you can fix it, then fix it,” Kurzweil said. “So when I got there, I thought I could fix it up a bit.”

It is unclear exactly what the future holds for Kurzweil’s collections. For now, he’s content to let her presence wash over him as he works on a memoir about his family’s history, including his father’s life before the war in Dobromyl. But he’s beginning to wonder if a museum should take care of them one day, and he wonders if any would.

Weingast, for his part, says that the collection has value precisely because the objects it contains have no value in and of themselves.

“He has amassed a fantastic collection of everyday objects,” Weingast said of Kurzweil. “The objects are free, they have no value. But the expense is paying people to find and ship them and, you know, getting people to not throw them away, not just throw them away. “

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