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Libi Astaire

Dr. Les Glassman’s stamp collection taps an old hobby for a window to the world

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

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Photos: Elchanan Kotler

L

ike the horse and buggy, the icebox, and the transistor radio, the old-fashioned postage stamp seems like a relic from the past: a time when life was simpler and slower; when a letter was the primary means of keeping in touch with far-flung family members and friends; when the writer, knowing the letter would be saved and reread, took the time to spell out words like “for” and “you.”

In that pre-jet-travel, pre-Internet era, a postage stamp from a faraway place like China was an exotic treasure that stirred the imagination. The stamp, often a miniature work of art, would depict a local landmark, a famous personality, or the land’s unusual flora and fauna. It also retained a trace of adventure — a hint of mountains traversed, oceans crossed. It’s therefore no wonder that until a few decades ago, stamp collecting was the number one hobby in the world.

But at a time when electronic mail and social media are the primary means of keeping in touch, and where just about anyone can make a virtual visit to even the remotest locale, it’s also no wonder that the average age of today’s stamp collector is around 60. That aging cohort doesn’t bode well for the hobby’s future.

Just don’t tell that to Dr. Les Glassman. In recent years, the South African-born stamp-collecting devotee has been enthusiastically representing Israel at philatelic exhibitions around the world as a commissioner of the Israel Philatelic Federation, a nonprofit organization that promotes stamp collecting in Israel. For him, stamps are still as fascinating today as when he first turned to his hobby five decades ago.

 

Track That Letter

By day, Dr. Glassman practices general dentistry at the Jerusalem dental clinic founded by his older brother, Dr. Jacki Glassman. But when we meet with him at his home in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood, it’s not to talk about cavity prevention or braces. Instead, it’s to learn about a hobby that has fascinated him for more than 50 years — and which has its roots in 1960’s Johannesburg, where he grew up.

“Life in Johannesburg was good,” he recalls. There was a Jewish day school. Anti-Semitism was rare. But there was one serious drawback: other than sports, there wasn’t much to do after school. His father, Boris Glassman, solved the problem by bringing home packets of stamps.

“My father’s dad died when he was only six. After that, his life was stamps,” Glassman explains. “He later conveyed his love of stamps to me and my two brothers. I have a sister as well, but she wasn’t so keen about the stamps.”

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Like his father, Dr. Glassman also began collecting at the age of six. Early on, he realized a fact that all collectors eventually must face: He couldn’t collect everything. Because he loved dogs, he decided to concentrate on collecting stamps from around the world that featured dogs and cats. The collection he assembled was good enough to be shown at an exhibition. But when he was a teenager, a trip to Eretz Yisrael took his hobby in a new direction: collecting “covers” related to the history of Jerusalem.

What’s the difference between a stamp and a cover, and why collect one over the other?

Glassman explains that governments have issued thousands of postage stamps over the years, with print runs that can go into the millions. Therefore, most stamps aren’t valuable. (Exceptions are stamps that have an error of some sort, such as a flaw in the design, a misspelled word, or a missing color.) “Cover” is the philatelic term used for an envelope that was posted in the mail; while the stamps affixed to the envelope might not be valuable, the cover’s journey to its destination, as seen through the various postmarks, can turn it into a valuable piece of social history.

For history buffs like Glassman, researching the history of a cover — Who was the person who sent the letter? Who was the recipient? — can be even more exciting than tracking down an elusive stamp to complete a collection. That excitement is on display when he shows us a few gems from his Jerusalem collection: an 1847 hand-addressed cover from London-based Sir Moses Montefiore to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, and an 1861 letter from a Jerusalem resident addressed simply to “Rothschild, Paris.” Despite the lack of a street name or building number, that second letter reached its destination, a testimony to the dedication of the early international postal system and the fame of the French banking family. Yet another curio is a letter dating from the time there was a cholera epidemic in Eretz Yisrael. Because people still believed that diseases could be transmitted via things like letters, the cover asserts that it has been disinfected before being posted. 


Profile of the Queen

While people have been writing letters for thousands of years, the postage stamp was only invented in 1840. Before the Industrial Revolution, letter writing was usually done by government officials or members of the upper class, and the missives were sent by private courier. But with the rise of the middle class, as well as improvements in education and transportation, there arose a need for a more standardized and affordable method of sending mail. England was the first country to come up with the novel idea of the postage stamp, which is basically a receipt showing that the sender has paid for the cost of sending the letter to its destination.
Penny Blacks, as those first one-penny stamps are called, feature a profile view of Queen Victoria against a black background and are perhaps the most famous stamps in the world. The idea caught on and Penny Blacks were soon joined by stamps issued by other countries. For instance, the first stamps issued in the United States were a five-cent stamp depicting Benjamin Franklin and a ten-cent one showing George Washington, both circa 1847. Russia began issuing stamps in the 1850s.
Postage stamps featuring national leaders or other famous people were popular, but the designers of the stamps soon branched out into other areas. Emblems, such as a national flag or a coat of arms, began to appear, as did pictorial scenes depicting a famous building or a flower or some activity. There were also stamps with a design built around the stamp’s numeric value. 
By the 1860s, people had begun to collect these novelties, and governments, always on the lookout for additional ways to raise revenue, began to issue stamps specifically for the collectors’ market. In 1864, Frenchman M. Georges Herpin coined a new word to describe the popular new hobby: philately, which comes from the Greek words philo, meaning friend or aficionado, and atelia, something that has been prepaid or exempted from tax. 

Meet Me in Mozambique

While a few stamps are worth a small fortune due to their rarity, most aren’t worth much more than their face value. Collectors therefore pursue the hobby for other reasons. Some just love the thrill of the chase, perusing catalogues and visiting stamp dealers with the hope of finding the missing items that will make their collection complete. Others have an interest in a certain topic — such as wildlife, space exploration, or a historical event — and have built a stamp collection around this theme, a type of collecting that is called topical or thematic.
Dr. Glassman’s stamp collection contains several themes, including a collection of stamps from Mozambique that he inherited from his father and later expanded. Why Mozambique?
“Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and it’s very rare to get letters from there,” he explains. “There were very few Portuguese people living there and they didn’t write many letters back to Portugal. The locals didn’t send many letters either. But they made very beautiful stamps. Sometimes stamps are issued by a government for financial reasons. They’re sent to stamp dealers, because they’re for collectors. Stamp collecting used to be a big business.”
Glassman adds there was also a more personal reason for his family’s interest in the country, which is located in southeast Africa and has a long coastline that fronts the Indian Ocean. “My father was more of a traditional stamp collector. In South Africa it was hard to get material. He and my mother used to go on holiday in Mozambique and so he would bring back stamps.” Another connection was made when Dr. Glassman married; his wife’s father grew up in Beira, a city in northern Mozambique. 
Glassman’s Mozambique collection includes stamps that were issued, as well as hand-painted artwork for stamp designs that were entered in the government’s design competition but rejected. Because the hand-painted artwork for a rejected stamp design is one of a kind, it’s usually worth more than the winning stamp that was issued. 
Along with stamps showing a hippopotamus, the Portuguese-built Fort Sofala, and a traditional African hut, Glassman has a cover with a strip of five stamps, all still attached to one another, showing two elephants holding up a coat of arms. The stamps date back to 1895.
“It’s a forgery,” Glassman reveals. “Mozambique stamps were printed in columns that were just four across, not five.”
Usually, forged stamps would be torn from their sheet and divided into packets, which were then sent to stamp dealers, so no one would realize the stamps were forged. It’s very rare to find a cover with forged stamps that went through the mail, like the one in Glassman’s collection.
The forgery was discovered by another frum Jew, who also happened to have a career in dentistry before he turned professional stamp dealer, an Englishman named Leslie Brueckheimer.
“He never opened his shop on Shabbat,” says Glassman, “even though in London that was the busiest day for stamp dealers. He wrote an article about postal forgeries of Mozambique, and he said this cover was the first time he had seen this particular forgery.”

Stamp of Approval

Glassman’s Mozambique collection won a large gold medal at an exhibition held in South Africa in 2004. By then, he and his family were living in Jerusalem — a fulfillment of a family dream dating back to his great-grandparents.
“They lived in a town south of Kovno called Mariampol,” says Glassman. “They were very Zionistic, and my great-grandfather sent his wife and children to live in Eretz Yisrael before World War I. He hoped to follow. But during the war they were expelled by the Turks because they were foreign citizens, and they had to return to Lithuania. But they never felt that Lithuania was their home.”
The British took control of Eretz Yisrael after the war, but they limited Jewish immigration. Glassman’s family, therefore, went to South Africa instead. “My great-grandfather didn’t want to be there, either. He wanted to be in Eretz Yisrael. He was never able to realize his dream, but his descendants have.”
Today, Glassman not only lives in Eretz Yisrael, he also represents Israel at stamp exhibitions around the world, as part of his role as commissioner. Philatelic exhibitions can be local, regional, national, or international. While some exhibitions are devoted to a specific theme, others are wider in scope and might have different sections for traditional philately, postal history, and young stamp collectors, for example. The stamps that are part of a collector’s display usually aren’t for sale, but stamp dealers also often attend, giving collectors a chance to add to their collection. 
Collectors who wish to exhibit at one of these gatherings will select stamps or covers from their collection, and then create a display that also includes the writeup of their research. While it might be relatively easy for a collector to exhibit at the local level, it’s considered a great honor to have your display accepted by an international exhibition — and an even greater honor to win one of the prizes, which can include gold, silver, and vermeil medals. 
On the international level, judges usually need to be accredited by the F?d?ration Internationale de Philat?lie (FIP), the umbrella organization for federations around the world. According to Dr. Glassman, the judges will evaluate the excellence of a display by the rarity of the stamps or covers, the quality of the research, the layout, and how interesting it is. 
He adds that Israel is always welcome to submit an exhibit and attend world stamp exhibitions; it’s philatelic policy that no country is boycotted. What happens, though, when a yarmulke-wearing Jew from Jerusalem rubs shoulders with people from countries that don’t have friendly relations with Israel? 
“I always wear my yarmulke when I go to these events,” says Glassman, who insists he has never experienced anti-Semitism from his fellow stamp collectors. In fact, sometimes he and the Muslim commissioners find they have something in common, as happened at an exhibition held in Johannesburg eight years ago. “The commissioner from Pakistan saw me and asked, ‘How do I know what to eat? Do you know anything about halal?’ I showed him a bag of crisps that had both the beit din sign and the halal sign.” 
When he attended a world exhibition in Indonesia, a Muslim country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, Glassman had to travel using his South African passport. But there, too, he says he was warmly welcomed. 
“I went with my wife and we had no idea what to expect. I thought maybe I’d wear a cap. Then I decided I wasn’t a cap person. I’d wear my yarmulke. When we got there, they couldn’t do enough for us. They were so glad we made the effort to attend. 
“The social aspect of stamp collecting is amazing,” he adds, giving yet another reason why the hobby has traditionally been so popular. 

Collecting a window to the past

When Israel hosted a world stamp exhibition in Jerusalem earlier this year, it gave Glassman the opportunity to meet old friends, including Bruce Chadderton, a non-Jew from New Zealand who has been collecting stamps and covers pertaining to the Holocaust for years. 
“What’s amazing is that he shows the whole Shoah, from the very beginning in the 1930s to the establishment of Yad Vashem after the war,” says Glassman. “When he found a cover, he would research the people mentioned in the letter. In his write-up, he would include pictures of the people when he could find them. Sometimes, this is the only record we have of these people, because they were killed during the war. From these postcards and letters no one can say that the Shoah didn’t happen.”
Chadderton’s collection was published in the book Descent into the Abyss: The Shoah by the Education Fund of the Society of Israel Philatelists, an organization that is concerned specifically with philatelic material related to the Holy Land, Judaica, and the Holocaust. On a lighter note, the Israel Philatelic Federation, whose members can collect stamps from any country and any topic they choose, published a Haggadah shel Pesach featuring the stamp collection of Moshe Rimer. The stamps come from around the world. While Egypt contributed a goodly share of stamps depicting a pharaoh, it is Guyana that surprisingly supplied a gorgeous sheet of stamps depicting the Parting of the Red Sea.
Glassman has his own Tanach-related thematic collection: stamps illustrating parshas Bereishis. “Collecting stamps that are connected to the pesukim is a great way to make the Tanach come alive for kids,” he comments. He adds that there are many Jewish-related themes that kids can collect; for instance, stamps showing shuls, Torah personalities, or Jewish rituals. 
How many of these sorts of stamps exist? In his collection alone, he has a stamp from Denmark showing a woman lighting Shabbos candles and a pamphlet describing the stamps that were issued around the world in honor of the Rambam’s 800th yahrtzeit. He suggests that kids who want to start their own collections could start by buying stamp catalogues, which are sold at post offices and the shops of stamp dealers. The catalogues tell who designed the stamp, how many copies of the stamp were issued, how much the stamp is worth, and other information. 
Raising a new generation interested in stamps can also help prevent a chillul Hashem. Glassman has in his collection a stamp issued in South Africa that has Hashem’s Name on it in Hebrew. Knowledgeable collectors quickly brought the stamp to the attention of the South African Beis Din, which explained to the government that they had to stop issuing the stamp. 
“People aren’t careful with stamps,” says Glassman, who owns a rare copy of the stamp. “The stamp could have been thrown on the floor. It cost the government millions of dollars in lost revenue to destroy all the stamps, but they did it.” 


Family Album

As Glassman begins to put away the collection that has given him so much pleasure over the years, he comments, “You can learn so much about a country through its stamps. It’s a pity there is less interest in the hobby today.” 
Yet another reason to be saddened by the demise of the hobby is that pieces of a family’s history might be floating about the world and the family wouldn’t know it. 
“I found on eBay a letter that my wife’s grandmother had sent from Beira to somebody in Salisbury,” he says. “Other people have found letters sent by family members in this way.” 
Glassman also has a letter from his great-grandfather to his grandmother, written when she was still living in Eretz Yisrael. “It’s one of my most cherished possessions,” he says. 
“You shouldn’t collect because you think stamps are an investment, because the value of stamps can go up and down. You collect for the interest and the friendship and the history. What can be more valuable than having a letter written by a great-grandparent?”

(Originally feautured in Mishpacha, Issue 717)

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