Holding Jewish History in Your Hand

A unique collection brings 2,000 years of Jewish life alive

Bergen County, New Jersey encompasses the well-known Orthodox communities of Teaneck, Bergenfield, Englewood, New Milford and Fairlawn. The range of elementary and yeshivah high schools in the area is among the finest in North America. Opportunities for Torah study for men and women of all ages abound on every level. People often ask whether, if you count them, you will find more shuls or more kosher restaurants there.

But what is not generally known is that one of the typical, charming Teaneck homes, belonging to Rabbi Benjamin Yablok and his wife Aviva, contains an extraordinary assemblage of Jewish historical treasures, dating from Temple times to today, that is one of the most fascinating such collections in private hands anywhere. 

Rabbi Benjamin Yablok’s collection is an extraordinary assemblage of Jewish historical treasures dating from Temple times to today. Photos: Abbie Sophia Photography/From the collection of Rabbi Benjamin Yablok

Most people would picture a Judaica collection with large display cases full of ritual silver objects or rare books, which could hardly be contained in a private home. But although it consists of upwards of 5,000 items, Rabbi Yablok’s collection is stored in several dozen binders and boxes that fill only a few bookcases and some shelves. 

That is because the artifacts in this collection consist of coins, stamps, documents, photographs, badges and other ephemera. When viewed individually, each of the items holds its own significance; as a collection they present an extraordinary wide-lens overview of Jewish history.

Rabbi Yablok was born in a small town in Ohio, where his father was in the scrap business. “He would occasionally bring me home a coin that he had come across,” Rabbi Yablok recalls, “and when I was nine or ten I got the bug and started collecting them.” 

Before coins were minted in about the sixth or fifth centuries BCE after the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash, merchants would weigh payments of silver and gold on a balance scale. Weight stones were used to indicate to marketplace vendors and their clients the relative worth of their items. The Torah discusses the need for honest weights and measures in Vayikra 19:36: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity.” Seen here, three scale weights (avnei tzedek) from the era of the First Beit Hamikdash, inscribed in ancient Hebrew. From left: Beqa, pim and netzef. Beqa is mentioned in Shemot 38:26 referring to the weight of a half shekel.

By the time he came to study at Yeshiva University, he had become interested in the coinage of several countries. “I would sometimes skip lunch in order to save money to buy coins that I wanted,” he remembers. Since he was in Manhattan, he would go to visit the various coin dealers located around Times Square. He befriended the dealers and other customers who were fellow collectors, and began to learn the ins and outs of how to buy and trade, and how to build a collection. 

After he graduated and received semichah, he married and moved with his wife to Seattle, Washington, where he taught for eight years and obtained a master’s degree in school administration. This was followed by four years as a principal in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then in 1990 he moved to Teaneck, having been appointed as associate principal of Manhattan Day School on New York’s Upper West Side, a post he happily held for twenty-five years until his retirement.

Shekel and half-shekel coins from the time of the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, 67-70 CE.

But having spent time in Israel and been exposed to its history, having visited the Israel Museum, Yad Vashem and many of Israel’s other remarkable storehouses of knowledge, Rabbi Yablok decided there was a whole Jewish world to collect, and so he began to concentrate on Jewish coins. “I still have,” he says, “the first ancient pruta coin that I bought in the Old City, probably for about three dollars—and it’s not worth a whole lot more today—but that got me started.” 

Eventually, he was able to collect samples of all the coins minted by the various regimes that dominated the land of Israel through the ages. He notes that while many of them do exist in multiples, they are often hard to come by. Others are quite rare and of important historical value. “If I tell people that I have coins and weights from the time of the Beit Hamikdash,” he says, “they are very skeptical.”

After October 5, 1938, the passports of all German Jews were marked with a red “J” for Jude/Jew, which limited their options to travel and escape.

But Rabbi Yablok’s fascination with collectibles has by no means been limited to coinage. His binders are carefully divided into a dozen other topics, such as shuls depicted on postage stamps; pre-State land of Israel; Sephardic Jewry; Jewish campaign buttons; World War I; autographs of all of Israel’s prime ministers; the Shoah and more.

The many artifacts from the Shoah range from the startling to the horrific: paper money issued by the Nazis to be used by Jews incarcerated in the ghettos; a letter that says, “Je ne pas Juif,” so a potential employer could know it was okay to hire this person because he’s not Jewish; a passport with a big red J on it for Jude; and a heter me’ah rabbanim granting halachic permission to remarry to a man whose wife was taken to the Belzec extermination camp but whose death no one actually witnessed.

Currency, in half to fifty-mark denominations, printed May, 1940 for use in the Lodz Ghetto. This was token money issued when the internee’s real German money was confiscated. Nicknamed “Rumkies” after Chaim Rumkowski, the ghetto leader who signed them, they were worthless outside the ghetto walls. 

Aviva Yablok once challenged her husband as to why he thought it was right to hold on to items such as these, that should really belong to the families of the victims. He pointed out that most survivors didn’t want any remembrance of what they had gone through, and they discarded their yellow stars and their red stamped passports. Many of these things became collectors’ items. “If the families wanted them,” he added, “they would have kept them. But this way I can use them in my teaching and share their significance with my students.”

Some families do have a sensitivity and want to hold on to everything. But when one of Rabbi Yablok’s colleagues learned what he was doing, he gave him one of two yellow stars that his late mother had kept from her time in the Drancy camp in France. “Dedicated collectors,” Rabbi Yablok observes, “can get excited about something like that, even though what it represents is horrible.”

Whether it be a coin or a document, from the specific time and place that you’re talking about, you show people something that was actually there—that to me is better than five lectures or six encyclopedias. That’s the point; it’s that feeling.

The more than 500 Sephardic documents and photographs in the collection originate from twelve different communities all over the Middle East. Some are written in Ladino and some are in Solitreo, the standard Sephardic Hebrew script used for Judeo-Spanish in the Balkans and Turkey. Rabbi Yablok’s sister married into a Sephardi family, and so he knows where to turn if he needs something translated. “In fact, the whole collection,” he says, “has been my portal to learning about languages, about alphabets, about monarchs, and about Jews around the world.”

Before social media, many people wore buttons as a means of self-expression, and “Jewish” buttons proliferated in the 1960s as the cause of Soviet Jewry inspired dozens of designs. To reach immigrant Jewish populations, political campaigns would distribute buttons with translations of their slogans into Yiddish, such as “Ich gleich Ike” for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “I like Ike” 1952 presidential campaign.

Rabbi Yablok has about one hundred postage stamps that feature shuls. Interestingly, only about a dozen of them, which mostly depict the ruins of ancient synagogues, are from Israel, and only one is from the United States. But several countries in Europe and in the Far East have issued stamps portraying synagogues, some as part of sets celebrating national architecture, others honoring the local Jewish population. A few commemorate special events such as major renovations or important visitors, or synagogue buildings destroyed in the Holocaust. (One problem that Rabbi Yablok has encountered when using these images in his teaching is that many young people today have no idea what a postage stamp is used for.)

The 700 buttons in the collection were worn to identify with and to promote political campaigns, social issues or other causes. Before social media, many people wore buttons as a means of self-expression, and “Jewish” buttons, according to Rabbi Yablok, proliferated in the 1960s as the cause of Soviet Jewry inspired dozens of designs. To reach immigrant Jewish populations, political campaigns would hand out buttons with translations of their slogans into Yiddish (such as “Ich gleich Ike” for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “I like Ike” 1952 presidential campaign), or would simply transliterate the candidate’s name into Hebrew characters. Buttons were also popular to identify affiliation with youth movements (“Real happiness is NCSY”), protest movements (“Free Pollard Now!”), and for religious messages (“Be happy, it’s Adar”).

Once Rabbi Yablok reached the point where he felt he could make coherent presentations on Jewish history showing the actual items or their images in PowerPoint presentations, he began speaking in shuls and schools across the country. He found that the immediacy of showing the actual item he was teaching about would have a huge effect.

For example, he cites Rashi on Shemot 21:32, where the Torah specifies a payment of thirty shekalim for damage done to the property of others. In order to convey to his contemporaries the worth of a shekel, Rashi mentions the medieval European standard for silver, which was based, he says, on a coin struck in Cologne. “I have the actual coin that Rashi refers to,” says Rabbi Yablok, “stamped with the word ‘Colonia,’ and when I show it, it makes Rashi come alive.”

Without hesitation, he rattles off in quick succession the names and the relative values of all the coins mentioned in the Talmud, and of all the coins minted by the rulers of Eretz Yisrael in successive eras. He has researched the historical background of each example and has labeled them accordingly.

When he retired, Rabbi Yablok set about creating a website, www.virtualjewishmuseum.com, photographing every item and posting a description of each. He sees this as another way in which he can share his collections with others. “Also,” he adds reluctantly, “I knew the time would come for me to part with it all, and this way I could still look lovingly at the things I have collected over more than fifty years.” 

And indeed now, having reached his middle seventies, Rabbi Yablok is ready to divest himself of most of the collection, although he is set on retaining a few favorite items. Like most serious collectors, he does not want his beloved treasures to be dispersed piecemeal, but rather that they find their way to other collectors who will really appreciate owning them. “In all the years,” he remarks, “I haven’t yet come across anyone else out there who does exactly what I have done.” But today collecting has become much more widespread and there are many auction houses with weekly online sales of Judaica items. 

Rabbi Yablok continues to give presentations to shuls and schools, triggering intense interest and often amazement in audiences young and old alike. His collections have forged a continuous link from the ancient Hebrew writing on the first pruta coin that he purchased to the digital images on his website. His passion for bringing Jewish history alive has suffused his own life, and it is a passion that he has used to enrich the lives of others.

“You hold something in your hand,” says Rabbi Yablok with his trademark enthusiasm, “whether it be a coin or a document, from the specific time and place that you’re talking about, you show people something that was actually there—that to me is better than five lectures or six encyclopedias. That’s the point; it’s that feeling.” 

To see Rabbi Yablok’s collections online, visit www.virtualjewishmuseum.com.

David Olivestone served on the staffs of the British Museum and of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and as the OU director of communications.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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