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Nancy Kalikow Maxwell

At the Thrift Shop

The lifecycle of Jewish junk. 

Most people can’t bear to go to the animal pound because of the urge to adopt all the abandoned animals they see. For me, the location that pulls at my heartstrings is the Goodwill Store in Plantation, FL. I can’t stand to leave all those forlorn-looking menorahs and kiddush cups in the store. Like forsaken puppies, they cry out for me to give them a good home. 

Because of the large population of elderly Jews here in South Florida, as people downsize or die their household treasures end up as inventory at local thrift shops. I love to shop at these second-hand stores, but am tempted to buy (read: rescue) every Jewish-related item I see. Only the fancy tzedakah (charity) boxes hold no appeal for me, because I’m philosophically opposed to buying an item to announce one’s generosity. If you have extra money, give it to a charity instead of purchasing an expensive container. The cocoa tin my daughter decorated in Hebrew school 20 years ago serves this purpose for me still. 

But I cannot turn away from all the other Jewish paraphernalia. That word originally referred to items a bride owned beyond her dowry, exactly the type of objects I find on the shelves: Shabbos candlesticks, challah covers, seder plates, menorahs; most likely all wedding gifts, originally wrapped with good wishes for the happy couple.

I enjoy imagining the family stories that unfolded around these pieces over time. I can picture Blanche, illuminated by the Sabbath candles, announcing her engagement to Izzy, followed by silence. No one could stand the schnook. And there was that Passover when Uncle Harry forgot where he hid the afikomen; matzo wrapped in its embroidered cover turned up two weeks later in the freezer. Or there was the time the Hanukkah latkes turned blue, their color matching the hand-painted dreidels on the ceramic platter. They were delicious, but you had to keep your eyes closed when you ate them. You get the idea; each object is a vehicle for invention.

And now all these conveyers of memories sit abandoned on the thrift shop shelf, nestled among a 2005 varsity volleyball trophy, a Christmas angel plate, a set of coffee mugs from Starlight Diner ($2.50 for four). 

I’m not the only one driven to rescue Jewish junk. When a friend found a needlepoint wall-hanging embroidered with “Shalom” in Hebrew at a community rummage sale, she was compelled to buy it. Digging out money from her purse, she heard the seller say “Oh, thank goodness someone’s taking this. I made it for my Jewish husband. He just left me. I want this — and him — out of my sight.”

The propensity to rescue previously owned Jewish possessions must run in my family. When my brother was scrounging through a table of tchotchkes at a yard sale, he discovered a velvet tallis bag in the bottom of a Sketchers shoe box. Finding a neatly folded prayer shawl inside its holder, he grabbed it and approached the bored-looking woman sitting in a lawn chair, downing her beer. 

“You can’t sell this,” he commanded, thrusting the tallis at her. “This was probably given to somebody for his bar mitzvah. That’s when I got mine.”

Granted, he has rarely used his in the 50 years since. Even so, he cringed at the possibility that the ritual garment could end up as a campy accoutrement for some teenager or as a little girl’s dress-up costume. 

“Honestly,” he pleaded, “this needs to stay in your family.”

She looked at him and asked flatly, “Ya wanna buy it?”

And so he did. He purchased the tallis, took it home, and tossed it into his dresser drawer. There it sits, atop his other unused tallis, right next to a crocheted yarmulke with the price tag still on. All these religious accoutrements waiting for him — or more likely his heirs — to pass on, like a Jewish fruitcake.

Perhaps there is a better way to recycle these keepsakes. How about sending them to an online auction? Not only would this help find loving homes for these pre-owned objects, it would raise money without any fancy pushke (charity) boxes. 

I love this idea, and thought about it for my latest Goodwill purchase. Though I already owned three, I’ve just bought another menorah. With my senior discount, it cost me $1.79. To benefit a charity, I’m now auctioning this fine brass hanukkiah. It’s a chance for someone else to own a piece of vintage Judaica.

For those with a vivid imagination, it comes loaded with plenty of stories, along with a lifetime guarantee. At the end of the owner’s life — which God willing will be a long time from now — it can be put up for auction once again. Or, if need be, taken to Goodwill by your descendants, along with all your other Jewish junk.


Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is a freelance writer whose previous articles in Lilith include “Shabbat Without Shopping Carts.” Her website is www.librarygrants.org; her email is kaliwell@kaliwellinc.com.