“The practicing Jew is connected to religion through practice. The non-practicing Jew is connected through art,” according to Jonathan Greenstein, president of J. Greenstein Co., Inc., a company that has been holding Judaica auctions twice a year since 2004. Greenstein owns the only auction house solely devoted to the sale of Jewish ritual objects. The biannual auctions feature rare Jewish ritual objects, works of art, books, and manuscripts.
Some religious Jews do collect art, and others sell it to make ends meet in the wake of the Madoff scandal and the general downturn in the economy, according to Greenstein, who finds and sells antique Jewish artifacts dating from 1600 to the 1940s. He also runs across pieces like a menorah given to the late Sammy Davis Jr. by a women’s group in the 1960s.
“The best places to buy antiques are New York and Los Angeles, where there are aging Jewish communities,” he said. “There is more Judaica in New York apartments than there is in museums. The Lower East Side is cleaned out [of Judaica], and now the second generation is selling things. Then again, people find me on the Internet, and I bought my best Kiddush cup on eBay.”
Greenstein, who calls himself a strong Zionist, added, “There’s a ton of clientele out there. Where you have Jews of means, you have Judaica collectors. I’ve met some really great people.”
Serendipity and a love of Judaic art brought Greenstein to a place where he could make a thriving business out of a hobby. At the young age of 41, Greenstein has already been working in the field for over 27 years. It all began when he was an enterprising teenager.
Candidly, the affable Greenstein admits that he was “thrown out of yeshiva at age 14.” He made an agreement with his parents that he would go to public school but get a job. The job turned out to be at an antique store at a time when silver was selling for $50 an ounce.
“Old ladies were bringing in Kiddush cups and menorahs to melt down,” Greenstein said. “I made an agreement with the owners of the store that I would get them in lieu of payment.”
He quipped, “Most guys that age are chasing women. I was chasing Kiddush cups.”
Greenstein began to do consulting for Sotheby’s. In 2003 a Chabad rabbi asked Greenstein to run a charity auction. In 2004 he ran his first auction, and today he is considered a leading expert on antique Judaica.
Greenstein explained that Judaica items passed down through the family after the hardship of immigrating to another country or later when fleeing Hitler during the years of World War II are cherished and special. During the mass immigration of Jewish people to the United States from 1880 through 1927, many people brought their family Judaica items, passing them down through the generations. These are the pieces that are often being sold as older people are dying off and younger family members might need the money due to the state of today’s economy.
“Rare and one-of-a-kind artifacts and antiques are now surfacing that haven’t seen the light of day in generations as the effects of the sinking economy and the Madoff scandal congeal,” Greenstein said. His June 2009 auction was especially newsworthy because of the story of the family of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, one of Bernie Madoff’s many victims. Schindler’s wife, Rhea, was forced to sell the family home, as well as to liquidate some of the couple’s prized possessions. On Greenstein’s auction block were sacred treasures given to the rabbi when he retired as head of the Union for Reform Judaism and as a leader of the World Jewish Congress.
Greenstein said, “One of the artifacts is a silver Torah crown, an ornately detailed piece which adorns the holy scroll. Another is a silver Torah pointer, used so that fingers never touch the sacred text. It dates from the 1700s and is extremely, extremely rare. Very few objects of this quality survived the Holocaust.”
Rhea Schindler decided she must part with these objects to get an income of some sort and went to Greenstein to sell them at his June 2009 auction. Greenstein declined to charge a fee will be charged to the family and hopes that in some way these two pieces will wind up at the daughter’s synagogue, where he thinks the sacred objects belong.
Many pieces of Judaica were lost in 1939 when Hitler came to the conscious decision of ridding the country of Jewish religious items, according to Greenstein. Hitler had the ornaments melted for the silver and the Torahs used for the soles of shoes. Hundreds of years of Jewish history were wiped out, making the Judaica that remains that much more rare and valuable, the Judaica expert explained.
Greenstein is often retained to see if items are authentic. Approximately 70 percent of the items he sees for sale are fake, most made with the intention to deceive the buyer. Greenstein also has lectured at major institutions and museums. He is also the author of The Lost Art a book describing the lost art of making silver kiddush cups in the 18th and 19th century. In Germany many of the artifacts were made by non-Jewish silversmiths, Greenstein said. However, the art of silversmithing was “extremely Jewish” in Poland and the Ukraine.
Though Greenstein also own a medical supply business, “the auction house is my primary love, my real passion,” Greenstein said. “I don’t collect Judaica anymore, because I don’t want to compete with my clients,” he concluded.