Published February 23rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
While working on this column, I discovered that a surprising number of my non-Jewish friends have no idea what the term “Judaica” means.
It’s time they learned — and now there’s a great way to do that at a Kansas City area synagogue.
“Judaica,” says Abby Magariel, educator/curator of the new Michael Klein Judaica Collection at Congregation B’nai Jehudah, “is any object that is part of Jewish history, Jewish culture or Jewish ritual.”
The collection is open to the public any time the temple is open at its Overland Park location, 12320 Nall Ave. And it’s remarkable, containing nearly 1,000 items to help people understand Jewish life.
Klein says the collection is for not just temple members and not just other area Jews but for everyone.
“I thought it would be nice to keep it together,” he said of the items he’s been collecting for decades. “Financially I can afford to donate it but I would like to keep it in Kansas City.”
Some people encouraged him to open a museum, but that turned out to be too complicated and expensive. So he chose to donate the items.
“I decided on the temple,” he said. “I think it will be here for a long time to come because of its financial stability. And I’m a member.”
In addition to all the items in the collection, Klein also is giving the synagogue an endowment fund — a substantial but undisclosed amount — to maintain it, pay for Magariel’s salary and insure it.
For tax reasons, Klein still is the official owner of the collection because completing the donation before his death would require appraisals that he says could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But all of it will go to the temple at his death, when the law will require no such appraisals.
Although many pieces (but not all) in the collection are displayed in glass-enclosed cases in the temple’s lobby, they’ll be much more mobile than that.
“I said over and over that I don’t want pretty things just in a case,” Klein said. “People tend to ignore that and walk on by. If it’s to be meaningful it will need an educator/curator to come up with programming.
“I’ve learned tremendously by putting the collection together,” he said. “As Abby can tell you, even to this very day we’re learning new things about various pieces.”
Magariel says she has plans to have printed material explaining the exhibit available to visitors soon, as well as an audio guide. She’s also training volunteer docents. Beyond that, the collection will be used by the temple’s religious school to educate children.
As I toured the collection recently with Magariel, she pointed out yarmulkes (skull caps) from Scotland with a particularly Jewish pattern.
“Michael collected those because they have those Scottish tartans,” Magariel said. “It’s here to remind us all that there are Jews all over the world, Jews who adopt elements of cultures from around the world. And that is part of what has made Judaism survive.”
I asked her about a dark, sturdy wooden chair, which she said is for the prophet Elijah.
“It’s specifically made for a circumcision ceremony in which the prophet is supposed to be present,” she said. “It’s special because it comes from 17th century England right after Jews were permitted to come back into the country.”
So in just that one item observers can learn about a Jewish religious custom and some history of one of the countless times Jews have been persecuted.
One area of the collection that quickly grabs attention contains yads, or pointers, used by people to guide their eyes as they read scripture. They’re from all over the world, including Russia, eastern Europe, Central Asia, the U.S. and Israel. And in each of those locations, scripture is read in the original Hebrew, and also sometimes translated into the local vernacular.
All of this started decades ago.
“The collection began sort of by accident almost 50 years ago,” Klein said. When his parents visited Israel, they asked Michael what he wanted them to bring back for him. He elected to skip typical touristy kitsch and, instead, asked for an antique spice box used in a service at the end of Shabbat.
“They brought me back not one but three antique spice boxes,” he said. So he began reading about them, going to museums and meeting collectors and dealers. “I started buying things that had interesting stories behind them. Pretty soon I ended up with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
He continues to pick up additional knowledge by being part of the acquisitions committee of the Jewish Museum in New York.
His passion has turned into a Kansas City area gem to be shared with everyone. It’s one more way all of us can become a little more religiously and culturally literate.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.