Jewish treasures, under the eyes of experts


A tinsel painting _ done on the back of glass. This one commemorates the death of "Eliezer, son of Moshe," who died Feb 8. 1903. "May his memory be blessed," it says. It was brought to a family heirloom appraisal event Sunday at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Rockville, Md. (Michael Ruane/TWP)

When Simon Isenberg was forced to leave his home in Nazi Germany in 1939, he took his family’s exquisite mizrach, a Jewish devotional image. It was folded up and placed in his pocket as a keepsake of his heritage.

On Sunday, more than 70 years later, his granddaughter, Ellen Hoffman, brought the mizrach to an heirloom appraisal program in Rockville. The image is framed, conserved, but with the creases from her grandfather’s flight still evident.

It was one of the many family treasures brought to a program called “For What It’s Worth,” a kind of Jewish Antiques Roadshow sponsored by the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, held at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

“It’s priceless for me,” Hoffman said. “My father says that his dad used to keep this in his shirt pocket, folded up, and that’s why the creases are so evident. My grandfather was not a particularly religious man, but you could take so little out of Germany that I think he felt this was probably special.”

Hoffman said it might date to the 1880s or 1890s.

Her grandfather had a large department store in Dortmund, Germany. She said the Nazis hung posters on the windows proclaiming that it was a Jewish store and forbidding people to make purchases there. Her grandfather “had to just leave it,” Hoffman said. But he took his mizrach with him.

James Hyman, chief executive of the partnership, said a mizrach was a piece that a Jewish family would hang on an eastern wall of a home to indicate the direction of Jerusalem, toward which prayers were directed.

Hoffman’s colorful mizrach depicts in gold, green and blue Mount Sinai, Moses, the Ten Commandments and symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel. It is also inscribed in German and in what Hyman said was Yiddish.

“The voice of God is heard, we respond in complete holiness,” Hyman translated one inscription.

Hoffman said the mizrach was appraised at between $300 and $1,200.

“I really wasn’t looking for any monetary value,” she said afterward. “I just wanted to see what interest it aroused. . . . Hopefully it will never leave our family.”

The real value for many people, Hyman said, was the history contained in the objects.

“As you can see, these pieces are about personal journeys, personal histories, that sometimes go back . . . three centuries of people’s lives, and what they treasured and what they valued,” he said. “We wanted to give people a chance to hear about those histories, and to learn about their ancestors’ journeys, and particularly what they valued most.”

Aviva and Isaac Landa of Potomac brought in her family’s elegant “Scroll of Esther,” a book of the Old Testament that is read aloud during the celebration of Purim.

It was at least 200 years old, Aviva Landa said, and dates to her family’s roots in Turkey. The scroll was beautifully inscribed in black on cream-colored parchment.

The document was housed in a cylindrical silver container, which had a tiny decorative hand crank at the bottom to retract the parchment after it had been pulled out.

Renee Fischman of Cabin John brought in a white and blue Passover matzoh cover that she said had Yemeni embroidering. The cover is used during the Passover Seder to hold pieces of matzoh.

She also brought a Hanukkah menorah that she bought at a yard sale 20 years ago. It was only a reproduction, she said, but it was of unusual construction.

Fischman said a man in a concentration camp had made the originals, the delicate objects fashioned out of nails.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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