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On Site: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

Rachel Ginsberg

The screws and paint up front camouflage the cavernous backrooms of this Jerusalem hardware store, where a secret stash of thousands of menorahs tells ancient stories to a new world

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

 Mishpacha image

“Every menorah has its story,” says Dr. Yosef Shabtai, whose doctorate from Hebrew University is in archaeology. “It has nothing to do with how much silver it has or how fancy it is. In terms of the metal, most of them are worth grushim, but they’re all precious to me.”

Y osef Shabtai’s Tambour store on Rechov Moussaief in Jerusalem’s Bucharim neighborhood is probably the strangest hardware store you’ll ever come across.

Walk in and you might trip over a random assortment of paints, cleaning supplies, dusty boxes of screws, tools, and old pots. Persian seems to be the language of choice among the motley crew of “customers” — friends and neighborhood down-and-outs, none of whom look like they’re here to buy screws or paint. The old pots, the proprietor explains, are for his Erev Shabbos food gemach; in fact, from the look of his clientele, there’s not much regular business going on here.

But raise your eyes, and the nuts and bolts and coils and wires fade out, overshadowed by a massive assortment of old menorahs — copper and tin and bronze, hanging from the rafters, dangling from the hardware display pegboards, between the buckets of whitewash, on every available surface. Out front is just a tiny sampling of Yosef Shabtai’s enormous collection — what he calls the largest menorah collection in the world — the rest of which is hidden in the store’s cavernous chain of backrooms.

Each Menorah Tells a Story

Dr. Yosef Shabtai — he has a doctorate in archaeology from Hebrew University — doesn’t let just anyone into those back chambers, which he says contain around 5,000 menorahs from 75 different countries. Two bochurim who heard about the store make their way toward the inner doors, but he promptly throws them out. “I don’t let every group come in, otherwise this place would be overrun,” he explains. “Only certain people are allowed back there — but not the snoopers.”

Shabtai, 59, says he’s “crazy over menorahs,” and will literally go to the ends of the earth to boost his collection. He hears about menorahs from just about every country where there’s been a Jewish community, obtaining his finds from other collectors or individuals who’ve heard about him — sort of a collector’s underground, which might not interest most of us, but is a lifeline for people like Dr. Shabtai.

“Every menorah has its story,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with how much silver it has or how fancy it is. In terms of the metal, most of them are worth grushim, but they’re all precious to me. Look”—he holds up a dented menorah made from tin—“this is from a man who was murdered in Poland by the Nazis. His children found it and brought it to me. I paid a small fortune for it.”

Everyone Has His Price

Dr. Shabtai, who published a book for the Education Ministry on historical menorahs, says that not everyone who has a special or sentimental menorah wants to part with it. “Take this menorah from Morocco, for example: It looks to you like corroded junk, but I was willing to pay top dollar for it. I heard about it and traveled there, but the owner didn’t want to sell. Whoever wants to sell, I grab, but whoever doesn’t, I keep an eye on it for the future. Sometimes their kids will sell it. Everyone has his price and everyone has his time when it’s ripe for selling.”

Which menorah does the man who owns thousands light for himself? “This one,” says Dr. Shabtai. “I bought it from a Holocaust survivor named Bill Cohen, who was a neighbor of mine. During the Holocaust he hid it in the home of a righteous Polish neighbor. His whole family had been murdered, and after the war he went back to retrieve the only thing he had left in the world — this menorah.”

That’s how he obtained a menorah he claims was actually made in Auschwitz, intricately carved out of stone in the shape of a Magen David together with the words “haneiros hallalu.” “Look at the Magen David,” he says. “Do you see how sad it is? This is a crying menorah.”

He pulls out another menorah from the organized mess (“I know where everything is, even though it looks to you like a big balagan”) — a strip of metal with an intricate floral design made out of some extra strips of aluminum. “I bought this from an old Yerushalmi lady,” he recounts. “I must have gone to her a hundred times, but for years she refused to sell it because it belonged to her grandfather and to her father, the last remnants of that lost era of Yerushalayim shel Maalah. But then her grandchildren were getting married and she wanted to help them out, so she decided to sell. This was a menorah lit by the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim. They were so poor they couldn’t afford more than a scrap of tin, but they beautified the mitzvah as best they could.”

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