Writing about vintage Judaica


Copyright Adam Jones, Source Flickr

As I discussed in a previous post, all my Jewish characters are observant (of varying levels of frumkeit, within all the major denominations). Part of that includes writing about vintage Judaica.


Copyright Vadim Akopyan

When writing about vintage Judaica, important considerations should be material, how many of each per home, and age. Unless your characters live in a giant metropolis with a huge Jewish community like NYC, Paris, Budapest, London, or Jerusalem, they couldn’t just hop over to a Judaica store and have their pick of ritual objects. There also weren’t scads of Judaica companies with regular catalogues, to say nothing of online stores!

Hence, your characters would’ve been much more likely to have inherited their Judaica from older relatives or in-laws, or gotten them as wedding presents. So if you’re writing about the first half of the 20th century, these objects would already have been at least a few decades old.


Copyright מצילומי יהודית גרעין-כל (Photography Yehudit Garinkol)

There’s a concept called hidur mitzvah, beautifying a mitzvah (commandment). Our ritual objects are supposed to be beautiful, though not ostentatious and showy. It’s one thing if you can only afford the most basic models or have to make your own, but you should ideally always buy the nicest Judaica you can afford. It’s an investment, like a quality computer or DVD player.

Until fairly recently, most Judaica tended to be made from the tried and true, classical materials—silver, gold, bronze, silver-plated bronze, wood, glass, pewter, maybe aluminum or tin if the family didn’t have a lot of money. You wouldn’t have found chanukiyot with racecars, dogs, dinosaurs, ballet shoes, or sports balls as candle-holders; turtle mezuzot like mine; or hot pink and neon green tallilot.

Other vintage materials might include soapstone, painted ceramics (particularly Armenian Judaica), or multicoloured fused glass.


Copyright Bluewind

What kinds of ritual objects would your characters have had, and which are the most important?

Mezuzah, the scroll affixed to the doorpost of one’s home. Ideally, one should have one on each doorpost (except for bathrooms and most closets), on the right-hand side as one enters, about a third of the way down, slanted inward. The mezuzah is the scroll itself, not the beautiful case. Every seven years, it should be checked by a scribe to make sure it’s still kosher.

Nowadays, certain factions promote the downright superstitious belief that the mezuzah is like a protective amulet, and that if bad things are happening to you, it’s probably because your mezuzah isn’t kosher. Maimonides condemned such an attitude, but apparently the Hareidim know better than one of our greatest sages.


18th century chanukiyah from Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), Copyright Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme

Candlesticks. Lighting candles to usher in Shabbos and holidays is one of three mitzvot traditionally performed by women (the others being separating challah dough and going to the mikvah). However, if there are no women in the house (e.g., if a man lives alone, or if he’s a single father), men can and absolutely should light.

Chanukiyah (usually inaccurately called a menorah). A chanukiyah is the nine-branched candelabra used by Chanukah, while a menorah is a seven-branched candelabra used by the Temple. To be kosher, all candles must be perfectly aligned and straight. Traditionally, Ashkenazic chanukiyot use candles, while Sephardic and Mizrachic ones use wicks in olive oil.


Copyright Eli Morav

Havdalah set, used for ceremonially ushering out Shabbos and holidays. There’s a braided candle and its holder, a Kiddush cup for wine and its little plate, and a spice container.

Kiddush cup, used at all ceremonial meals, under the chupah (wedding canopy), and by Havdalah.

Seder plate, used on the first two nights of Pesach (only one night in Israel).

Matzah cover/holder, also used by the Sederim. This can be velvet, silk, satin, embroidered cotton, wool, anything but a mix of wool and linen.

Challah cover, used by Shabbos and holiday meals, and made of the same materials.

Little honey bowl, spoon or dipper, and apple plate for Rosh Hashanah.

Gragerim (noisemakers) for the Megillah reading by Purim.

Ritual handwashing and fingertip-washing cups.

Challah cutting-board and knife.


Ketubah, the marriage contract without which a couple cannot live together. It’s often beautifully calligraphed, with little illustrations, and framed in a prominent location. More Orthodox couples kept it private.

Miniatures, depicting things like a Shabbos table, a chupah, a sukkah, and a Seder table.

Dreidls, which can range from plain, small, and wooden to large porcelain not intended for playing with.

Tzedakah box, for collecting coins for charity.

Amulets, like the hand-shaped hamsa or a plaque with the house blessing.

Tallit (prayershawl) and tefilin (phylacteries). In Orthodoxy, these are almost the exclusive domain of men, and traditionally, a man only begins wearing tallit upon his wedding, not at his bar mitzvah. The fringes represent the 613 mitzvot, and you’re not supposed to fulfill the first, “Be fruitful and multiply,” outside of marriage! In the Reform Movement, until a few decades ago, it was uncommon for either sex to wear one.


My own handiwork


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