Jew Things! (Or: What Is Judaica Anyway?!)

Dear Josep,

The other day I had a strange urge to clean the top of this bookcase and the items on it.

You may be asking yourself, “What’s with all the lions?” or perhaps, “Why did she have an urge to clean that shelf while completely ignoring the clutter right underneath it?” Both legitimate questions, but for the moment I’d like to focus your attention davka on the train.

photo of silver train engine

Looks like a silver train engine, right? The only thing on the outside that betrays its secret is the subtle Hebrew inscription on the chimney.

This train was given to Eitan by his grandmother, who ran a Judaica shop at the local synagogue (where I happen to be giving a talk in a couple weeks!). It contains all sorts of Jewish surprises, and I’m going to use it to introduce you to the Judaica in my home.

But before we get to the train, I must start with #1 most important thing you will find in a Jewish home…

Books

meme of buzz lightyear saying, "Books! Books everywhere!"

After all, this post did start with a bookcase, didn’t it?! 😉

I recently heard someone refer to bookshelves as “Jewish wallpaper”. Jewish life revolves around books, and we proudly display them to express how important they are to us. I elaborated on what those Jewish bookshelves may contain in this post.

I will spare you a photo of the rest of our bookshelves, because let’s just say the aforementioned clutter is, um, consistent. (Look, I never claimed to be a good housekeeper, okay? 😛 )

Now, coming back to our train:

Shabbat Candlesticks

That’s what those “chimneys” on the top are supposed to be.

Many Jewish women have a pair of candlesticks they use for the Shabbat candles. Some, like in my family, have the custom of lighting an extra candle for each of their children, so sometimes they have a larger set.

You have seen my Shabbat candlesticks before:

photo of candlesticks on a windowsill

The short silver ones belonged to Eitan’s great-grandmother. The tall silver ones with the topaz stones were a gift from my grandparents for my bat mitzvah; the Hebrew letters on them are the blessing for the Shabbat candles. The china one in the center is from a pair I was given by my friends from Boulder before Eitan and I got an engaged.

R2 made the one with the colorful pebbles at preschool, and that’s what he uses; the other kids use those flower tea light holders I made in a ceramics class. The tea light holders with the Jerusalem landscape painted on them were a wedding gift. I use those for guests.

I normally use simple tea lights as Shabbat candles. We went through a phase where I was using glass bulbs filled with colored paraffin oil, but frankly, they were messy and annoying to deal with. (For the record, the candles I gave you recently are fancy and would probably not actually be used for Shabbat, because we would only be able to use them once, as we can’t put them out once they’re lit!)

Havdala Set

So, the havdala ceremony that closes the Sabbath requires three items: a multi-wicked candle, something pleasant to smell, and a cup of wine or grape juice. Many Judaica stores carry “havdala sets” that contain a candle holder, a goblet, and a container to hold spices (besamim). Often they include a little plate or tray for the items to rest on, and to use to pour the wine and put out the candle at the end of the ceremony.

photo of havdalah set
Photo credit: Olaf.herfurth [CC BY SA 3.0]

Remember that scene in By Light of Hidden Candles where Manuel stumbles into Alma’s grandmother’s Judaica shop, and snatches something off the shelf to find an excuse to be in there? The thing he snatches is a besamim holder that probably looks something like the item on the right.

So, here is the miniature “havdala set” from Eitan’s Judaica train:

photo of the havdalah set, made up of the front part of the engine and one of the "cars"

The Hebrew lettering on the “chimney” reads “borei me’orei ha’esh“, “Creator of the lights of fire,” the blessing we say over the havdalah candle, and the lettering on the box says besamim. I say it’s miniature, because I don’t think the candle holder or the cup are a practical size. The cup needs to contain a certain amount that won’t fit in that tiny thing, and I’ve never met a havdala candle that would fit in that little slot. This is the one we actually use:

photo of plastic plate with large candle, silver goblet, bottle of essential oil, and cloth satchel on it
The havdala candle was purchased at the same factory in Tzfat as your candles!

It’s free-standing, and we’ve never actually owned a besamim holder, a havdala candle holder, or a special goblet just for havdala. For besamim, we just use a bottle of essential oil or a satchel of cloves R1 made in school (pictured above), and for the goblet, we just use our:

Kiddush Cup

Remember these?

photo of five silver goblets of varying sizes

We use these silver cups for the Kiddush ceremony–a blessing over wine we make before the festive meals on Shabbat or holidays. Kiddush cups are often made of silver or another metal, glass, or ceramic. We have two other goblets that we don’t use:

photo of two goblets; on the left, tall goblet made of red glass painted with gold and white trim; on the right, small silver goblet
The red one belonged to my Zadie, and he used it during Passover; the silver one belonged to Eitan’s grandfather

So, one of the compartments in the train engine is a besamim holder… what is the other one?

Tzedaka Box

photo of other "car" from train, which has a slot on the top

The lettering reads tzedaka. Tzedaka is charity, and it is very common to give children their own tzedaka boxes (called pushkes in Yiddish) as a gift or have them make their own–so common, in fact, that we have quite a surplus:

We do use them to collect loose change to give to charity, but mostly, they have a symbolic educational value. It may be more effective to give charity these days through online payments, credit cards, or checks, but putting a coin into a box is much more tangible, something our kids can do to learn that this is an important value.

Our train contains just one more surprise…

Chanukiyah

This one you definitely know. 🙂

The chanukiyot we use on Chanukah are very simple, very inexpensive, standard fare from the average supermarket.

photo of five simple chanukiyot with all candles lit

In previous years, we’ve often used chanukiyot the children made at preschool. Really, you can just arrange some candles on aluminum foil, set one to the side, and call it a chanukiya.

Or, if you want to get fancier, some chanukiyot are true works of art. This was the Chanukah display at the Harim Shopping Center at the Gush Etzion Junction a few weeks before Chanukah this year:

photo of table with a display of many chanukiyot of different colors and designs

Challah Stuff

The challah loaves are a centerpiece of the Shabbat table.

photo of two braided loaves

If they are on the table while we’re making Kiddush, we need to cover them first, because according to the rules of the hierarchy in blessings, you’re technically supposed to make a blessing on bread before wine if they are both in front of you at the same time. So we cover the challah with a cloth. (In our house, usually we just keep the challahs off the table until it’s time to make the blessing on them.)

And so we have challah cutting boards, challah covers, and challah knives…

photo of table spread with lots of colorful cloths, two cutting boards and a bread knife

…and even this tray to put the challah slices in and pass around the table.

photo of tray made of wood and silver with a glass insert

Washing Cups

Remember when I showed you how to wash your hands for bread?

photo of three two-handled washing cups

We use two-handled washing cups for ritual washing before bread or upon waking. They can be simple plastic or made of metal, glass, or ceramic.

The metal thing in the back is for mayim acharonim, water poured over our fingertips after the meal is over.

Mezuza Cases

Well, I know you know what these are. 😉

Eitan recently bought this one to replace a glass case that, completely out of the blue, fell and shattered into a thousand pieces a few months ago, thereby unleashing the superstitious Jewish ancestors deep in my veins: “The mezuza jumped off of the wall, okay?!” I shrilly insisted to an amused Eitan. “We need to get our mezuzas checked NOW!!!” (You see, we’re supposed to have the scrolls checked from time to time to make sure they’re are still kosher–meaning, in good condition without any of the letters smudged or anything. And there’s a well-known superstition that bad things will happen in a household where one of the mezuzas isn’t kosher, so when there is a series of unfortunate coincidences, people often say “Better check your mezuzot…” I absolutely do not believe this superstition. And yet. IT JUMPED OFF THE WALL, JOSEP, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND FROM THIS?! 😛 )

Anyway: as you know, mezuza cases range from very simple plastic ones to expensive precious-metal-and-jewel-encrusted affairs. We have ones made of various metals, wood, and stone.

Prayer Paraphernalia

photo of tallit and tefillin
Eitan’s tallit and tefillin

I covered these in a post about prayer. These items are used only by men in Orthodox communities. That plastic tefillin box on the upper right protects the tefillin, and it has a mirror on it to help the man make sure it’s centered on his forehead.

I bought Eitan’s tallit for him as a wedding gift, as is the tradition in our community. 🙂

Kippot

I covered these thoroughly in A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear.

So now you know your way around a Judaica store! 😉

Oh, and about the lions–that’s actually only part of my collection. My grandparents liked to collect works of art on a certain theme for each of their grandkids, and they collected lions for me, because of my name (Daniel[la] in the lion’s den). I never identified much with the prophet Daniel, but I have always loved cats, big and small, and lions in particular. (Are you a cat person too? You strike me as a cat person.)

Love,

Daniella

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