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Antique Syrian Jewish Plate with Magen David in the middle. There are many more smaller Stars of David in the details of the plate. I found this in Brussels
photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak

A Syrian Sandouk (or chest) with Stars of David showing it was made by a Syrian Jewish artisan. A Sandouk was originally where a newly married bride to be would put her belongings when she left to move into a new home with her grooom
photo by Rhonda Spivak

You can see the Star of David in the middle of this section of the Sandouk made in Syria
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Great Synagogue in Brussels


by Rhonda Spivak, January 3, 2014

[Editor's note : I want to thank Dr. Catherine Chatterley for suggesting to me a couple of years ago that if I were ever to find myself in in Europe in a neighborhood or  area where Jews used to live I ought to stop in at antique stores, as quite often one can find property that used to belong to Jews before the Holocaust. I followed her suggestion and the result is the story you will read below] 

In Brussels two years ago, I had just come from visiting the stunning Great Synagogue  of Brussels at 32 Rue de LaRegence, when I passed by an antique store and decided I would stop in to see if they had any old Judaica items.

I had a hunch that they might, since before the Holocaust the area near the orthodox Great Synagogue built in 1878 would have been a Jewish area (orthodox Jews always lived near their shuls, so they could walk to them). I figured it was possible some items which had been the property of Jewish victims of the Holocaust might find their way into antique stores ---even now. Although I had this thought in my head, I hadn't really expected to find anything of interest. 

The store was huge-with all sorts of items, some in glass cases.

I was there only a few minutes before I spotted a plate, made of dark wood with an inlay of shiny mother of pearl. It had a very intricate design that must have taken hours and hours to make by hand

The plate was in a glass case, behind some other items, and I asked one of the sellers  if he could take it out from behind the glass so I could see it. 

He turned to me and said, "Which plate are you talking about?"

"The one from Syria," I replied.

His mouth dropped. "This one," he pointed. "It is from Syria. How did you know that?"

Instead of answering him, I asked another question ( a fairly Jewish thing to do). "How long has it been here?" 

"It's been here for a very long time. Many many years. No one has ever taken any interest in it.  It could be at least 50 years old, or even older," he said. "How did you know it's from Syria?"


"Not only is it from Syria, but it was made by a Jewish craftsman," I replied.

"That I didn't know. How do you know that? he inquired, his eyes gazing at me as he took the plate out of the glass cabinet, dusted it off a bit, and handed it to me.

I examined the plate closely with hundreds of little mother of pearl Stars of David that had been weaved into its design. 

I decided to explain. "The truth is that before two days ago, I would not have had any idea what this was," I began, explaining that I was a journalist.

"But it just so happens that two days ago I was in Israel interviewing a Christian Arab man who is an antique dealer and a craftsman. He specializes in making and fixing these types of wooden items with mother of pearl. At his shop, he showed me a number of sandouks, wooden Syrian chests, that have a mother of pearl design inlaid in them. It so happens he showed me a large wooden sandouk valued at $2000 dollars that had Stars of David in it. He explained that in Syria when the craftsman was a Jew, the craftsman would put Stars of David in the design."

I further explained that as soon as I saw this plate in the shop, I thought of what this Christian Arab man had told me. I recognized the Syrian design on the plate as it was similar to the type of design I had seen on the sandouks.

"Since it has Stars of David embedded in the design all throughout, it must have been a Jewish craftsman," I surmised.

The seller was quiet, digesting what I had said.

I pointed out the middle of the plate where there was a large star of David embedded in the design, and then showed him the multitude of other smaller Stars of David in the design. He had never noticed this before.

"There is virtually no Jewish community left in Syria today. Most left for the US or Israel by 1950, so it's likely that this plate was made before then," I said  (Note: A 2013 Jerusalem post article refers to their being only 50 Jews left in Syria, in Damascus )

I began thinking it was possible that somehow before the Holocaust this plate had once belonged to a Jew from Brussels, who had possibly been to Syria or received it as a gift. Even in Israel, to find a plate such as this would be rare.

The plate was a vestige of another world--a lost Jewish world, I thought to myself as I admired it.

Needless to say, I bought it- for $100.00. I don't know if that's a fair price or not. But that's what he had wanted and I figured that my chances of ever finding another like it were slim to none.

The design in the plate is completely intact except there is one little piece of mother of pearl missing from one of the Stars of David. (But I know a Christian Arab man in Israel who can fix it!)

At home, I used the plate on our Seder table.

That year, in April whatever  Jewish cultural heritage in Syria that remained fell victim to the civil war between President Bashar Assad's regime and rebels seeking his ouster. The Jobber synagogue in Damascus believed to be thousands of years old was damaged by shelling and looted. 

Further, in October 2014, ISIS jihadists were looting one of the oldest known synagogues, 244 BCE synagogue (located at Dura Europos) in Syrian. "The fate of the synagogue which was discovered in 1932 remains unknown," according to an article in Israel National News.


My Discovery in a Viennesse Antique Shop


In Vienna in 2014 I  noticed an antique shop  in  central Vienna,  and decided to stop in.

I was the only one in the shop and asked the female vendor if she had any Judaica.

I had no idea she was Jewish until she asked me if I spoke Hebrew, and when I nodded, we began to converse in Hebrew. As soon as a man walked in the shop she immediately switched into speaking German.

When he left, she asked me to wait a minute as she wanted to show me something. She brought out a wooden hand carved statute of a man with a long beard, and began again to speak to me in Hebrew.

"This was made by a Jew who died in Auschwitz," she said.

"How do you know?" I replied.

She turned the carving upside down and showed me the number that the Auschwitz prisoner scrawled into the bottom of the carving.

What are you going to do with it? I asked.

She asked if I wanted to buy it for 2000 Euro. I was a bit stunned.

I said that I thought it belonged in a museum, and wasn't interested in buying it personally. 

She said that she wasn't interested in lowering the price as she liked it and would keep it as part of her own collection. 

I got uncomfortable about the idea of another Jew selling the sculpture made by a Holocaust victim from Auschwitz for profit. But to her, it was simply part of her way of making a living.

I had wanted to ask her where she had gotten the carving from--was it at some flea market? Who had found this and how?

But I didn't get up the courage to ask. Instead, I was uncomfortable and decided to leave the shop. 

When I was back near the shop the next day, I decided I would go by and ask her how she had gotten the carving.

I summoned the courage, but the shop was closed.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.