Searching for Judaica: Stories told through Jewish artefacts
A Jewish wedding night – ‘The First in Bed to Put Out the Light’. Picture by the author.
I remember being on holiday with my father as a kid, a rare event as he was seemingly always working. We would be driving through small Australian outback towns and suddenly he would spot a sign: ‘Antiques for Sale’. You could be forgiven for not noticing these signs in these outback towns. The way the signs looked hurriedly painted and put out on the side of the road, it was as if the owners expected most people to keep on driving. But without fail my father would see the sign and suddenly swerve off the road, taking us all by surprise. ‘Antique stop!’, he would call out, and out of the car we would all pour, a large family on a road trip together.
Once inside we would all split up to explore the potential treasures that lay in store. My father would start his search for Judaica (Jewish artefacts). Pieces of Judaica could be religious items but also creative pieces, like drawings, paintings, or pottery, showing aspects of life in different times. Occasionally my father would find something that interested him but mostly we would be ready to leave, and he would still be engrossed in conversation with the shop owner. The shop owner would be listening intently to him, explaining what an item of Judaica may look like in case the owner should spot any in the future, and why they were important. To my father they were important not because of their monetary value but because they told a story about the Jewish people, the paths communities had taken over time and the lives these communities had led. Items could display images of families at home either in religious ritual or in the everyday. Or they may provide commentary on an aspect of communal life in a particular era, depicting periods of political or economic hardship, or spiritual or collective renewal.
My father was a Rabbi who every day worked with, and led, his congregation, which was a small community within a larger community defined by their religion. He was equally enthralled by the stories of the present as he was with the past. He made sure he knew everybody and their families, his capacity to recall a face impressive. When an unfamiliar face turned up in synagogue (house of worship), he would make a point of introducing himself, and then inevitably invite them home for a meal. No one was allowed to be a stranger in the community, or just pass through the congregation. Everybody had to be known and included. The story of this community in Sydney, Australia, was still unfolding.
When my father’s health declined after he had been unwell for many years, he was admitted to hospital. I went to visit him and while I was there a nurse came to check on him. They laughed together while she took his blood pressure and when she left, he turned to me. ‘Did you know she has three children? Can you believe that? And she’s from Sudan! Isn’t she amazing? Incredible!’ Even at this point in his life, he was still interested in the individuals around him and the stories they had to share.
In the last few weeks of his life, my father needed to move into a nursing home for round-the-clock care. Each day, several times a day, I walked through the corridors of that nursing home, giving the nurses space to care for him. Outside of each residents’ room there was a glass box in which families had placed items to remind visitors, and their sometimes confused loved one, which was their room. This was a Jewish nursing home, and each resident had taken a different route to arrive at this collective place.
I grew to understand these people through studying their family photographs, inspecting the clothing they wore at various Simchas (celebrations) in differing time periods, and the Judaica that families had lovingly chosen to include. Some families had displayed religious items used in prayer or at celebrations held in their homes. In one glass case there was an old Siddur (prayer book), in another a Kiddush cup (religious cup for wine). Some had included photos of when they were in the army, or of their loved one with important people they had met in their lives. You could track which families had come to Australia from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, which families had lived for periods of time in Israel, and which families saw themselves as rooted in their Australian identity. I spent hours examining the glass boxes, looking at the old religious items or talismans amongst the family photos. The collective memory of our community was here amongst the individual journeys represented within the glass boxes, trapped in the finality of shared space that is a nursing home.
As time passed and the glass boxes became more familiar to me, I felt myself celebrating with these strangers. As I mourned for the person they were in their youth, I also felt myself experiencing their joy when I gazed into the photos of their Simchas. I was happy to see them celebrating new life through the photos of their grown children and grandchildren. My father was an antique collector and a lover of people and their stories. Although his story was coming to an end, I could not help but think that he also would have enjoyed walking through those halls, gazing into those glass boxes and glimpsing the stories and legacies held within.
Mim Fox is a Senior Lecturer Social Work at the University of Wollongong. Mim’s overall interest lies in storytelling and its impact on our understanding of lived experience. Her research is primarily in health and hospital social work service provision and practice knowledge generation, and in social work education and practice teaching. Mim is also the co-host of the Social Work Stories Podcast (https://socialworkstories.com), an internationally recognised podcast that showcases the practice stories of the social work community whilst modelling a clinical supervision dialogue.