Growing up in a small, primarily Christian town, I rarely felt like I had a community of other Jews to connect with. As a kid, I went to one of two synagogues in my county, but I stopped going after I turned 13; most of the other kids I knew there didn’t live in my town, so those friendships faded quickly once I left. In my classes in middle and high school, there were only two other Jewish students who, like me, came from interfaith families — at least we had that connection. My nearest Jewish relatives lived several states away, and my only Jewish grandparents were lost to illness long before I ever got to know them. In short, I grew up lacking fellow Jews I could relate to, and I’ve been longing for that community for years.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found an unconventional way to connect with the Jewish families and communities I’d always dreamed of knowing: thrifting.
Going to a thrift store and finding a piece of Judaica, whatever it may be, feels like finding a piece of home or family I haven’t met yet. Dreidels with the paint wearing off, seder plates that have been through countless Passovers, chipped ceramic Shabbat candle holders, menorahs with remnants of candle wax from Hanukkahs of yore — each piece tells a story, one that I hope to connect with through my collection of such items.
One of the very first pieces I found, and arguably my favorite, is a Godinger silver-plated tree of life menorah produced sometime in the ‘90s. It caught my eye immediately, standing out among the various knick-knacks and tchotchkes that surrounded it. It had a touch of tarnish from age, bits of candle wax still nestled deep inside each of the cups and a sticker on the base that told me I could take it home for just $9.99. And so I did.
Looking at this piece, I imagine the family who owned it enjoyed extravagant things. Their Hanukkah celebrations would have included the best of Bubbe’s homemade latkes with all of the applesauce and sour cream in the world, piles of gelt for the kids to play dreidel, and a collection of presents and toys to accompany their celebration of the Festival of Lights. How this piece made its way into a thrift store, I’ll never know, but I like to think the traditions of whatever family may have owned it are now being kept alive: It still sits on a windowsill every year for the holiday.
My most recent finds come from antique malls located in a Florida town where I wouldn’t have expected to see any type of Judaica. While much more demure than the the Godinger, these menorahs are special to me in their own way. A blue one with brass accents is bright and vibrant, reminding me of the way you feel when you celebrate Hanukkah with your loved ones. I’m not sure when it was made, but the back is stamped with “Oppenheim” and “Israel,” so I at least know the manufacturer and location of production. The pewter one, however, has a sticker on the bottom that says it was made in 1994 in India and sold by Aviv Judaica Imports, Ltd. in Brooklyn, NY. Based on the zip code located on the sticker, this menorah was sold near the Kensington neighborhood, which has had an established Jewish community since before WWII. This area features Jewish day schools, Hadassah chapters and a Jewish community center, which leads me to believe this menorah was once central to a loving and active Jewish community. This particular piece shows its age and use through the collection of dust and cobwebs that surround the candle wicks still peeking out of each cups. I have no way of knowing when it was last lit, or by who, or why it was sent to an antique store to find a new home. But I know that it was well-loved by its original owners, and I hope that I can show it the same respect and appreciation.
While I’m not necessarily looking for these pieces when I pop into a thrift store, I’m always delighted when I find them. Adding to this small collection of mine, which currently features five menorahs and a seder plate, has given me a chance to connect with past Jewish communities in a way I never thought possible. Of course, much of my understanding of the previous owners is completely speculative — but I’m still able to learn about each piece’s history, and I love to connect the dots and imagine how they came to be a part of a family before landing on a secondhand shelf. Thrifting Judaica allows Jewish memories to live on through the use of these objects during our holidays; it helps bridge the gap between Jewish communities of the past, present and future.