It’s a small book with a simple white binding, worn from use, with a back story that speaks volumes. Marilyn Monroe, who converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller in 1956, was presented with the siddur, or prayer book, by Congregation Torah Vodat in Brooklyn. She kept the faith — and the book — until she died in 1962. Now it’s at the J. Greenstein & Co. gallery and auctioneers in Cedarhurst. Monroe’s prayer book, estimated to be worth $6,000 to $8,000, is just one of about 150 works of Jewish memorabilia, art, antiques and ritual objects in an auction at the end of October.
AN EYE FOR HISTORY
A look in the window of the gallery on Central Avenue, with stacks of glossy auction catalogs just inside the door, beholds a dazzling yad, a Torah pointer shaped like a forearm and hand, and almost that length, set with amethysts, garnets and other gems. Next to it is a large mezuzah, for parchment scrolls, covered in jewels. “They’re all precious stones, hand-cut and mounted. . . . It’s made by Aviv Dekel, a contemporary Israeli artist,” explains gallery director Abe Kugielsky.
Founder Jonathan Greenstein started the auction business specializing in Judaica in 2003, but has been a collector and dealer of Jewish art for more than three decades. Over the years, the gallery has carried works from around the world. “Jewish art is really a compass of wherever the Jew is living at the time,” Greenstein says. “I’ve had a Chinese Torah. The Jews from Iraq were involved in the silk trade, so they actually had a small community in China. . . . I had a piece that was made in Ireland. Who would’ve thought you had Jews at the turn-of-the-century in Ireland? But you did.”
WHAT YOU’LL SEE
The gallery has been in Cedarhurst for about 10 years, but items on view date back as far as a Torah binder made in Italy in the 1690s. Other pieces that can be seen before they go on the auction block include a silver Torah shield made in 1821 in the city of Brunn in the Czech Republic valued at $45,000 to $60,000. It’s fashioned with two lions flanking a Decalogue (or tablet holding the Ten Commandments) topped by an ornate crown, presenting a visual declaration of pride, devotion and heritage. A pair of gilded silver cups is particularly rare because of the renown of the artist, Johann Mittnacht, a Bavarian silversmith from the mid-1700s. The delicate, tulip-shaped Passover and kiddush cups with Hebrew inscriptions are valued at $35,000 to $45,000 each.
In addition to Monroe’s prayer book, there’s Judaica from the collection of entertainer Jerry Lewis. Among the antiques related to Jewish rituals and celebrations are silver spice towers with exquisite workmanship, used, Greenstein explains, to breathe fragrance into the end of the Sabbath; candelabras, including menorahs; and a wide array of other Jewish objects, books and documents.
When something has been celebrated with and prayed over for generations, “it becomes holy,” Greenstein says. “Each time you’re using it for the ceremony, a blessing, or what’s known in Hebrew as a bruchah, is made. . . . Metaphysically, the objects absorb that blessing.”
The auctions take place in Greenstein’s Cedarhurst gallery, where curious art and antiques lovers and passionate collectors come to bid on relics from the past. Says Greenstein, “What we sell touches the soul of a Jewish person who wants to connect with their history.”
J. Greenstein & Co. Inc., Antique Jewish Ritual Objects and Art
417 Central Ave., Cedarhurst
INFO 516-295-2931, jgreenstein.com