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


(JTA) – Even when Arthur Kurzweil is sitting alone in his office, he doesn’t feel alone. After all, he has the dreidels – all 4,000 of them.

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

His most significant contribution to Jewish publishing, however, may be his books and teaching on Jewish genealogy: he has provided an exhaustive chronicle of his efforts to trace his own family’s lineage, including along the many branches. that were shattered when members of his family were murdered during the Holocaust.

The dreidels, pulled from the ground across Eastern Europe, represent an extension of that work, Kurzweil told the Jewish Telegraph Agency amid the collection from his Long Island home.

“I look at them… and I think, what’s the story of it all?” And when was the last time someone played this game? He said, adding: “I wonder what the fate of this person was in the end.”

It’s not just dreidels surrounding Kurzweil. Quietly and in collaboration with the large community of treasure hunters in Eastern Europe, he amassed a vast collection of Jewish artefacts found throughout Eastern Europe. As Holocaust museums and concentration camps bring visitors face to face with stacks of shoes and glasses worn by Jews on the verge of being killed, Kurzweil lives with memories of the life they have lived.

Dreidels (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

In addition to the tiny dreidels, made of pewter and lead and clearly intended for children, Kurzweil also collected boxes of kosher metal seals, which were said to have been affixed to food wrappers to attest to their kosher status; dozens of pins allegedly worn by members of young Jews and Zionist organizations; and metal disks the size of a coin that synagogues would have distributed to people called to Torah.

The collection also includes amulets which, although not a typical Jewish practice today, were historically used by Jews seeking to ward off various ailments. Several of the amulets in the collection include a prayer to protect the wearer from diphtheria. Others were worn to protect the wearer from the dangers of childbirth.

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

“It shows the day-to-day life of the shtetl at its most basic and ordinary and, if you will, when things were going relatively well,” said Beth Weingast, an art and Judaica appraiser who reviewed the collection for Kurzweil several years ago.

William L. Gross, a collector of Judaic and Jewish art in Tel Aviv for nearly half a century, himself has a large collection of amulets. He said he had never heard of such a large collection of everyday objects as Kurzweil’s, noted that objects such as those Kurzweil collected that speak of the daily life of Jews in pre-war Eastern Europe remain woefully under-researched.

“It is a fabulous material because they are objects of the normal and regular Jew, not of the aristocracy, not of the merchant class but of the people. And this is of extreme importance, ”said Gross.

John Ward, who heads the silver department at Sotheby’s, also said that Kurzweil’s collection of Judaica made from cheap metals such as tin and lead is significant. “Having that emphasis on folk art and the utilitarian side would be the only one I’ve heard of,” he said.

While 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 the Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is something very poignant about the idea that these are things that were used and loved and taken out on vacation and then basically turned into rubbish,” he said.

Of course, the objects did not become rubbish as long as they were transformed by the Nazis and their collaborators.

“My guess based on where they are is that most of the people who were entangled with these items were murdered during the Holocaust. So in a sense the collection becomes a Holocaust memorial, ”Kurzweil said.

Kurzweil first purchased an amulet unearthed in the 1970s on a trip to Przemyśl, Poland, a town where several of his family had lived before WWII.

“When I saw my first amulet, my first pendant, I was simply drawn to it. I was shocked that they still exist underground. I didn’t want them to disappear or be thrown out, ”Kurzweil said.

But it wasn’t until 2015, when Kurzweil traveled to Warsaw on his way to his father’s hometown of Dobromyl, that he discovered the tiny dreidels. The friend who showed him the objects introduced him to a metal detector enthusiast, a member of a network of treasure hunters who roam the areas of Eastern Europe devastated during the war.

Amateurs Kurzweil has encountered largely seek out gold and silver coins to sell, although others more specifically hunt Nazi paraphernalia, as detailed in Menachem Kaiser’s recent book “Plunder”. Few are interested in keeping trash the value of which is largely sentimental, and primarily limited to Jews.

“Suddenly I had a network of people myself who are not really looking for Judaica, but they know there is a guy in New York who is interested in this stuff and they contact me,” he said. said Kurzweil.

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

And for Kurzweil too, relations with the peoples of Eastern Europe are important. Kurzweil has been to Dobromyl 10 times and has gotten to know 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 purchase supplies for the local school.

“Thanks to everyone who made this possible,” he wrote on the school’s fundraising GoFundMe page. “Standing in front of the house where my father was born, I read each of your names in a low voice. What a privilege to help children everywhere learn. “

While the items Kurzweil collects act as a bridge between himself and history, Kurzweil’s gifts to the children of Dobromyl are firmly rooted in his desire to correct relationships between those who once hated each other.

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

The town’s mayor and English teacher, who serves as Kurzweil’s interpreter on his visits, send him cards every Rosh Hashanah. He hopes to return one day.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that if you come across something and 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’s unclear exactly what the future holds for Kurzweil’s collections. For now, he’s content to let their presence overwhelm him as he works on a memoir about his family history, including his father’s pre-war life in Dobromyl. But he begins to wonder if a museum should ever do it – and he wonders if some would.

Weingast, for his part, says the collection is valuable precisely because the objects it contains have no value on their own.

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

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