A decorative tray with a scene from Exodus by Joseph Tembach, Vienna, c. 1925. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
New York’s best off-Broadway show has been running for 50 years, but it’s still pretty obscure. Virtually invisible on Google and social media, it’s finally getting around to building its first website. Its low online profile is due to the age of the cast of characters who make it so fun to watch. Those with newly-minted AARP cards lower the average age by a couple of decades.
I refer to the Harry G. Friedman Society, which is the city’s finest show-and-tell for grizzled Judaica collectors the world over. I first encountered it about fifteen years ago at the Jewish Museum in New York, and felt like I was watching a Jewish wrestling match where the prize was winning the crowd’s approval of a newly acquired havdalah spice box rather than a championship belt. (Actually, sometimes the Friedman Society, as it’s called, did deal in belts, but they would have once belonged to Moses Mendelssohn.) When society members displayed their latest acquisitions, it could prove dramatic. I don’t recall the details, but someone might proudly hold up a kiddush cup he had just purchased and identify it as, say, 17th-century Dutch. No sooner would the attribution be made than another member would leap to his feet, insisting he would never purchase that object, with which he was familiar intimately, because it was a modern Chinese fake.
Transfixed in my seat, I knew I was watching something un-staged unfold before me that was better suited for television than Antiques Roadshow. And it was easy to imagine that just being in that room—on the second floor of the Jewish Museum—offered through osmosis a kind of Judaica education that, on reflection, points to something more.
The passage of time and the pandemic have nudged the Friedman Society in new directions, and as it stands poised in coming years for its second leadership transition, it is at a crossroads. The society’s president, Ira Rezak, age eighty-three, has been running the show for the last 25 years, and according to this retired physician and medals collector it grew out of informal salons hosted in the Upper West Side apartment of the late physician Alfred “Al” Moldovan and his wife Jean. Moldovan, who died at ninety-two in 2013, was the unofficial dean of Judaica collecting in New York. When overseas and out-of-town collectors came to visit Manhattan, they’d check in with Moldovan, who invited a few others to join for small gatherings of enthusiasts in his living room.
Rezak was fresh out of the U.S. Navy in 1966 when he met Moldovan at Judaica auctions in New York. Rezak had been collecting medals—commemorative objects distinct from currency—since he was a young boy. Spending time on a ship outside of New York, where he had grown up taking Judaism for granted, rekindled his interest in ritual objects. Soon Moldovan was inviting Rezak to his salon meetings. “We sat around and schmoozed,” Rezak says. “That’s the origin of the Friedman Society.”
By 1975, the salons had outgrown the Moldovans’ living room. Rezak attributes the larger crowds to growing Jewish pride, which he hypothesizes was due to Israel’s successes in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and which manifested in the increased interest he observed in collecting Jewish objects. “Judaica collecting is an up-and-down thing,” he says. Moldovan, who was on the Jewish Museum’s accession committee, persuaded the museum to give the group free space on its second floor.
“They took him seriously because he was an expert, and there wasn’t a lot of expertise in collectible Judaica,” Rezak says of Moldovan. “The curators at the Jewish Museum didn’t know bubkes about that.”
For twenty years, the gathering had a rent-free home, until the Jewish Museum finally started charging the society a modest fee. At some point when the group became more formalized, Moldovan named it after Harry Friedman, an economist, philanthropist, and collector who was one of the founders of New York’s Jewish Federation. “A third of the good Judaica stuff at the Jewish Museum is his donation,” Rezak says of Friedman’s gifts. Friedman died at the age of eighty-three in 1965.
At the Jewish Museum, the society began to draw 20-25 attendees on a typical Sunday, and Rezak, then in his late 30s and early 40s, and Benjamin Zucker, a gem expert and collector, lowered the average age dramatically. Some 25 years ago, when Moldovan’s wife Jean passed away, he handed leadership of the Friedman Society to Rezak. “He said, ‘You take it over,’ and that’s it. There was no vote,” Rezak says. “It’s not an organization that’s [run] from the bottom up. It’s top-down, so I took over.”
I recall, at the meetings I’ve attended, dramatic exchanges among collectors arguing over an item’s provenance. But Rezak says that no one is out to humiliate anyone. Unless the presenter asks the group to comment on an object’s authenticity, attendees usually keep doubts to themselves. They might speak up in private.
“I mean it has happened,” Rezak says. His wife—a medieval historian and sometime society attendee—has “blazed in her brain” an episode during the earlier Moldovan era when an elderly couple, regular collectors, brought up what the two said was a brit milah set. “Moldovan sarcastically said, ‘This is a nail-cutting set that somebody has modified to fool you,’” Rezak recalls. “According to my wife, these people were crushed and walked back humbly to their seats. But that almost never happens.”
Over the years, as I’ve lived outside of New York, the Friedman Society is one of the things I’ve missed the most. But the pandemic changed that. Now, on one Sunday a month, for a mere $20 annual membership fee, society members are invited to Zoom-based gatherings, and Rezak has seized on the opportunity to overload the docket with overseas collectors and experts, who otherwise do not frequently visit Manhattan, and whose travel expenses a volunteer group like the Friedman Society couldn’t afford to pay.
These days, true to form, the society’s BYOB (bring-your-own-bagel) informal discussion begins at 10:00 a.m. The most dedicated chat for a half-hour, during which the attendee count slowly rises, generally reaching approximately 85 people. (That’s compared with about 40-50 in person, pre-pandemic.) Schmoozing hour is cordial, but the conversation often veers toward public affairs. Supporters of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the former president Donald Trump, the Republican party, or ḥaredi Jews may find themselves on the defensive; such are the social conventions. When the meeting begins in earnest a lecture is followed by a question-and-answer period, and then, if someone has something to share, show-and-tell. Though attendance at the small society has risen, it’s hard to have a good show-and-tell on Zoom, which is a great shame. “Most of our clientele is not computer savvy,” Rezak says.
His heir apparent, Warren Klein, thirty-five, is the society’s vice-president and curator of Temple Emanu-El’s Bernard Museum of Judaica. Klein says that the golden age of show-and-tells had already been a thing of the past before the pandemic. Society members would convene for informal discussion and a presentation. But for months at a time none from among the audience would show new acquisitions; and then all of a sudden in the same session there might be three.
Technology may play a role in there being fewer presentations from regular attendees. It’s so easy these days to photograph an object on one’s phone and email it to Rezak or other society members and ask for advice in real time when, say, one is at a gallery or other sale. Klein has received emails of this sort from fellow members.
Although several decades separate Rezak and Klein—nearly three times the age gap between Moldovan and Rezak—both agree that young people have unique challenges connecting with Jewish objects. When asked what is missed when people spend their time with digital rather than physical objects, Rezak uses a term that his wife has told him is receiving a lot more scholarly attention of late: “materiality.”
“These objects were in fact agents in history. They actually determined how people lived. If you know that your candles are going to wear down at a certain rate, or you are going to run out of oil, you are forced to put in more oil.” Rezak says. “Materiality is, at the very minimum, an oblique angle into Judaism.”
One can touch, or at least imagine touching, material objects, which gives them advantages. “It gives you something that is vivifying rather than at arm’s length,” Rezak says. “If I were talking to a bunch of young people, I would say, ‘What is it that you value that you possess? Is it only knowledge that you possess, or do you actually like some things that you own, your scarf or your best necklace?’ And then I would try to interest them in history.”
One might also be interested in the things that one’s parents or grandparents used when they were children, Rezak says. He cites “the Rosebud phenomenon” of Citizen Kane, in which (spoiler alert) it emerges that no matter how powerful and wealthy a character becomes, a trivial object associated with his childhood commands his final attention in a way that his priceless treasures cannot. “American people in general, and young people in particular, have been trained generically to ignore the past and only look to the future. They don’t look back. Let bygones be bygones. Who gives a s— where you came from, I’m an American!” Rezak says.
Klein’s day job often involves teaching teenagers in his synagogue’s school about objects in the museum’s collections and exhibitions. “There is that powerful element that you’re holding something that someone made or used 200-plus years ago,” he says. “It’s somewhere that you wouldn’t even dream of having gone, or somewhere where your ancestors lived. It’s a powerful thing.”
But one place that young people aren’t likely to go is to a museum at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. When Klein first started attending society events, that was a struggle when he had been out the previous night. He thinks a balance can prove convenient for both the society’s older members and potential younger and fresher blood. He is also excited about the society’s forthcoming website, which he hopes will debut this summer. It will likely feature some recordings of key prior events, as well as exhibition and auction postings, and the like.
The society’s recruitment of young people has been “very disappointing” to date, says Rezak. “Partially it’s because they don’t have the instinct to collect, and there are so many things online to divert you,” he says. “People don’t join the Masons anymore. People don’t do this anymore, and they don’t do that anymore, because they’re diversified, and they’re very busy in some way. So that’s the situation.”
On the Zoom meetings I’ve attended during the pandemic, I notice more young faces than I remember in person, and Klein confirms that the society has been making some progress in this regard. It will have to do more of that in the coming years if it is, Atlas-like, to shoulder the burden of cultivating the next generation of Judaica collectors.
“This is the only program in the entire universe that is anything like it, by the way,” Rezak says, conjuring up thoughts about the uniquely American penchant for ordinary citizens to organize and to govern themselves. It’s not fated that the Friedman Society will last forever; Rezak has seen other amateur scholarly societies come and go. “This may die out too if we don’t ever get young people. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Both Rezak and Klein say that the society’s bread and butter is not its collector and curator members but its amateur members who love Judaica and want to learn more about it. “The level of knowledge of the people who attend is not bad, because they have been doing it for a number of years,” Rezak says. “It’s a notch or two above your average Hadassah-lady crowd that’s interested in Jewish things but doesn’t have the basis of understanding material culture, particularly. These people do. That’s how I describe it, and anybody who’s interested in that is more than welcome.”
The more I’ve thought about it, the more this small group of committed collectors puts me in mind of the lamed-vavniks, the righteous but hidden people on whose merit, according to talmudic lore, the entire cosmos is sustained. Maybe the Friedman Society will never become a household name, with long membership rolls. But it has a function in contemporary American Jewry that is precious. Jewish religious and cultural life requires material goods—religious and ritual objects among them—that Jewish artists have, in each generation, made beautiful, so as to elevate to the human eye what the Creator of the Universe hath commanded to the Jewish ear. To know these vessels, tapestries, and other art objects is to love them; to love them is to grow closer to their owners and creators.
What is the impulse that makes a collector want to collect? It is a desire to possess—to hold, to care for, to stave off the inevitable decay and oblivion that is the way of all created things. Just beneath the Sunday-morning bagels and camaraderie, a human impulse and Jewish necessity materialize at each meeting: the desire to keep alive ancestral memory in the world in an object that assumes dimension in weight and space.
At the Harry Friedman Society, real knowledge is kept alive and passed on. There are certain ways of knowing, a certain kind of competence in a tradition, facts to have at one’s disposal, assumptions and frames of reference, that can only be known by spending time with the elders. The Harry Friedman Society now welcomes a new generation into this informal apprenticeship in the arts of material remembering. New additions to the group may be small in number, but one never needs more than a few good men and women who are compelled by personal interest and enthusiasm to keep alive the Jewish stories that live on in each precious stone, in each etched metal, in each object once—and now again—held by Jewish hands.