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Arts & Culture They Don’t Feature Home-run Hitters, but Rabbi Cards Have Found Their Niche by Amir E

April 29, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In a 1991 episode of NBC’s game show “To Tell the Truth,” a bearded Orthodox Jew named Arthur Shugarman had the show’s celebrity panel stumped: Was his job to help people get rid of their New York accents, or was he the nation’s only maker of rabbi trading cards?

Back then, few had heard of the cards — glossies that depicted Orthodox rabbis, both dead and alive, and had statistics printed on the back, just like baseball cards.

So it was no surprise that everybody on the panel incorrectly pegged Shugarman as the American version of Professor Henry Higgins, the dialect coach in the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion.”

“The idea that people would really collect rabbi cards sounded too fake to them,” said Shugarman, now a 49-year-old accountant in Baltimore.

The cards first came out in 1988, and 16 years later, Shugarman has sold more than 2.5 million cards in five continents through his nonprofit, Torah Personalities Inc. The cards, Shugarman said, serve as a “media that we, the ultra-Orthodox community, can use” to unify Orthodox Jews.

This month marks the birth of Torah Personalities’ sixth series, a colorful set of 80 cards that took Shugarman and his younger brother, Laibel, four years and $40,000 to make. They come in packs of five cards and sell for about $1 in Jewish groceries and book stores.

Honoring, even lionizing gedolim — or great rabbis, from the Hebrew word for “big” — who interpret the Torah and determine Jewish law, is a fundamental component of Orthodox Judaism.

Torah Personalities is the marriage of that tradition with the card-collecting impulse of American culture.

Like the batting average and home run totals printed on the backs of Topps and Upper Deck baseball cards, the first and second rabbi card series, though substantially larger in size than their sports counterparts, had their own “stats,” both in English and Hebrew: birthplace, schooling, denomination, location of yeshiva, and Jewish date of their death, if applicable.

“There is no question that baseball cards make baseball more popular with the kids,” said Shugarman, who was a longtime collector of baseball cards. “Rabbi cards are meant to do the same thing” for Judaism.

But, and Shugarman stresses this part, the heroes of the Torah are meant to pick up where he says today’s heroes of sports falter: generosity, integrity and virtue.

“When I was growing up, we had players like Sandy Koufax, Brooks Robinson.” They were “really nice people, who gave to the fans and used to feel something good about signing autographs,” he said.

Whereas the emphasis in baseball card-collecting today is on mint condition and monetary value, the concept of the rabbi cards is old-fashioned: to see and appreciate the person on the card.

That’s not to say that all rabbi cards are equal. Back on “To Tell the Truth,” as the show’s celebrity panel grilled Shugarman, he was asked to name the most prolific rabbi.

“Moshe Feinstein,” he said, instinctively.

Nobody on the panel had heard of the revered dead rabbi, one of the century’s most influential authorities on Jewish law.

At 5-foot-5, Shugarman, who’s been an accountant for 27 years, is soft-spoken and succinct. He wears glasses, has a salt-and-pepper beard, and also goes by his Hebrew name, Chonon. He lives with his wife, Marsha, and his four children.

Laibel, 45, a mortgage broker, works out of Arthur’s apartment. Both brothers were raised in a Reform-Jewish home in Baltimore but as adults converted to Orthodox.

Between 1964 and 1980, Shugarman says he became one of Maryland’s top card collectors, amassing more than 100,000 trading cards, mostly baseball, that filled an entire room in his apartment. He sold the collection in 1982 for $10,000.

The idea for the rabbi cards is logical, he says — a way to tie his love for card-collecting and for gdolim. After all, 20 photos of rabbis hang on his living room wall.

Shugarman says he just made rabbi cards “official and organized” here in the United States: The Israelis have had their own rabbi trading-card industry since at least the mid-80s. Indeed, yeshiva students in Jerusalem created a minor hubbub in 2002 when they were found collecting rabbi cards in lieu of Torah study.

And for years, small photographs of rabbis without identification or stats on the back had been sold in New York for $2-3 a piece. Shugarman also said black-and-white rabbi cards were given as prizes to studious yeshiva students in the 1970s. Today, yeshivas are a significant buyer of Shugarman’s cards.

After Shugarman’s appearance on “To Tell the Truth,” which prompted mention of Torah Personalities in Time and Sports Illustrated, the cards returned to obscurity — although they continued to be a common item in Jewish stores in North America, as well as in England, South Africa, Australia and Israel.

Then, in 2000, the hit comedy film “Keeping the Faith,” the story of a friendship between a rabbi and priest in New York, plunged the cards back into popular culture by showcasing fictional, 1980s-era “Heroes of the Torah” cards collected by the rabbi — played by actor Ben Stiller — as a child.

Series by series, the cards have evolved from dark, postcard-size photos into sleeker, smaller-framed sets with specific themes explored on the back.

The newest series, distributed by the Jewish candy company Paskesz, shows rabbis performing traditional mitzvahs, or commandments. They range from the usual — eating matzah on Passover — to the unusual — chasing away a mother bird before taking eggs from her nest.

Getting the rabbis’ mug shots for the cards has not been as simple as pointing and clicking.

“The living rabbis do not want this honor,” Shugarman said. “They hesitatingly go along because of the value to the children.”

Ed Bernstein, 60, a Denver photographer who has taken more portraits of gdolim, 275, than anyone else, and who has sold Shugarman photos for the cards, said shooting a rebbe roll is no easy task.

“This isn’t Hollywood; we’re not dealing with models,” he said. “It’s very atypical for a rosh yeshiva,” the head rabbi of the school, “to stop what he’s doing and pose for a photo.”

One rabbi made Bernstein promise to take a widow from his congregation out on a date before he agreed to pose.

In an unscientific survey of New York rabbis spanning the more mainstream Jewish denominations, none of them took real issue with rabbi cards, though some expressed distaste; others just laughed.

Most rabbis agreed that the cards typified the “authoritarian structure” of fervent Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical group, said Orthodox Jews put their rabbis “in a less reachable position.” He added: “If they came and asked me to be on one of those [cards], I would say, ‘Absolutely not.’ “

As for excluding non-Orthodox rabbis from his cards, Shugarman said, “A real rabbi knows and lives the laws as handed down through the generations, beginning with Moses.”

And for how long does Shugarman plan to continue making the cards?

“As long as the kids want more cards and I’m not losing too much money, I’d like to keep it up,” he said.

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