LOS ANGELES (JTA) – This Chanukah, the miracle may need to come from your wallet. What with eight nights of family gift giving, many recession-year budgets might have only enough cash for five or six.
The miracle can still happen. Jewish thrift shopping can light your way.
For eight days we are required in our windows to demonstrate the nes, the miracle. This year, beginning Dec. 21, the year’s longest night, you can show the candles’ flames anew with old menorahs purchased for students, family and friends at thrift shops.
This Chapter 11 year you may want to think outside the box store. Not all dreidels need be of clay. Thrift shops have them in porcelain, pine, silver plate and acrylic.
Jewish thrift shopping provides an opening not only to stretch your budget — chanukiyot, Shabbat candlesticks, seder plates, books and artwork sell for a fraction of their original retail price — but to recycle many gently used Jewish ritual items. Through buying and contributing to Jewish and other nonprofits, you can support organizations hard at work repairing our communities.
In Los Angeles, several organizations that operate thrift shops carry Judaica. The National Council of Jewish Women runs several around town. The American Cancer Society runs Discovery Stores that sell chai pins and Star of David pendants. Beit T’Shuvah, the House of Return, an organization that provides a new beginning for Jews who have crossed paths with addiction and the law, carries chanukiyot and Jewish-themed artwork.
Jews have a tradition of hiddur mitzvah, of beautifying a mitzvah, and what better way than by putting to new use a pair of old Shabbat candlesticks and supporting organizations that help people to recover and start anew?
Nationally, NCJW, Hadassah and ORT run resale shops with Judaica in many major cities. Many towns also have thrift shops run by Jewish federation councils and hospitals. ORT’s resale shops help support 300,000 students, as well as communities and families.
The Torah concept of bal tashchit, do not destroy, finds an application in Jewish thrift shopping. In its Talmudic interpretation, these words from Deuteronomy are an injunction against waste, of discarding what might still be of use.
Many of our grandparents immigrated here with very little, carrying with them a much different attitude than ours about product life. Their feelings toward what we call “reuse” can be summed up by the lyrics of the well-known Yiddish folk song “Hob Ikh mir a mantl,” "I had a little coat":
“I had a little coat that I made long ago.
It had so many patches there was no place to sew.
Then I thought and I prayed and from that coat I made a vest.”
The song continues with the vest wearing out and being made into a hat, then a pocket, then a knepl, a button. Once that is gone, the tailor left with nothing, makes a song of his experience.
Thrift shopping can be an adventure, a trip back in time. Each object has a story to tell that with a little observation and research you will be able to hear.
When you find a blue-green metal menorah, you’re back in the ’60s. An olive wood “Shalom” challah cutting board say hello and goodbye to the ’70s.
You might even make a discovery or two. A few years ago, on a tip from a friend, I visited the Hadassah thrift shop and found a box of numbered screen prints from a series titled “Scrolls of Fire.” Printed from a series of artworks that grace the walls of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, the prints interpretively represent pogroms and tragedies of the Jewish people. The thrift shop price allowed me to buy more than 20. That year they formed the heart of a Tisha b’Av program held at my minyan.
On Chanukah many sing "Al HaNisim," which commemorates the Maccabees’ victory and is a prayer of gratitude to God for performing miracles. A recent trip to a nearby Jewish thrift shop showed me that not all struggles and miracles occur at war.
Amid racks of suits, shirts and blouses, I saw spread before me on dusty bookcases and faded trays the detritus of a generation battling to keep its identity, tradition and hope.
I found prayer books with inscriptions sometimes to children at their bar or bat mitzvah, certificates of tree planting, kashrut instruction booklets, and Hebrew instruction books of every level and size.
Thrift shop paintings have become hip as of late, and Jewish work is well represented. You will find rabbis at study and at table; rabbis in a hurry, tallit under arm; rabbis in acrylic, in oil, watercolor, paint by numbers; rabbis on velvet.
Making a thrift shop purchase this Chanuak and/or dropping off a bag or two of still usable stuff begins a journey that brings us to the foot of Maimonides’ famous tzedakah ladder — a ladder where the highest rung is giving so that someone can become self-sufficient. It’s a rung that many thrift shop operators need your help to reach.
The miracle is in stepping up.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a writer and designer of children’s toys and media.)