Antique Judaica

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The Jewish Bride, by Isidor Kaufman

Jews all over the world are celebrating the holiday of Chanukah this week. Chanukah, or The Festival of Lights, is a very minor holiday with little religious significance. It's history is thus: Almost two hundred years before the birth of Christ, a battle was fought between the Greeks and the Jews which lasted for three years. Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the battle finally ended when the Jews drove out the Greeks and then began the rededication of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Olive oil, which was needed to burn the temple's eternal flame, was scare. There was only enough oil to last one night, but miraculously God enabled the oil to burn for 8 days - the time it took to process new olive oil. Today, Jews celebrate this miracle by burning candles for eight days during the holiday of Chanukah.

Alongside the spread of the commercialism of Christmas, Chanukah has also become a widely commercialized holiday. Both holidays correspond to the winter solstice, so Chanukah has become known as the Jewish Christmas. The most visible symbol of the holiday is the menorah, or the candelabra with its eight candle holders plus one which is used to light each individual candle. Most Jewish families have several menorahs, a new one given perhaps as a wedding gift, and an old one that has been passed down for a generation or two or three.

These old menorahs are widely valued in the antique field known as Judaica, or, the collecting of Jewish ceremonial and secular items. This field has grown enormously in the past decade and major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's have their own Judaica division. Perhaps it is the hunger for a more spiritual life that has fueled the collecting of Judaica or maybe it is result of the Holocaust that has caused a feeling of pride of religion. Regardless of it's reasons, Judaica is a hot collector's item - not quite reaching Major Trend Alert status, but prices of antique Judaica are going through the roof.

There are three components of Judaica: manuscripts and books written in Hebrew, fine art, and ritual objects (of which the menorah would fall under). Items can be either secular or religious. Since Jew migrated from the Holy Land up through Spain, into Eastern Europe through Germany and finally Russia - before they began their westward flight to the Americas, Northern and Southern, Judaica comes from many different countries, with each country's unique influence upon a single object. Religious objects are universally either silver, pewter, or brass. Gold is rarely, if ever seen. Fakes abound. Ebay is filled with gold "antique" Judaica - if it's gold, it's fake. So, while Jews worldwide are celebrating Chanukah this week, take a look at some examples of the finest Judaica on the market from Sotheby's and Christie's. Shalom!

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A silver, Polish Chanukah menorah, from the late 19th century.

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A box, in the form of Rachel's tomb. Jerusalem, 1915. Estimated at auction to go for up to $40,000.

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A Chanukah Menorah: German, rare, silver tree-form, late 18th century.

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One of the most beautiful pieces of Judaica: a breastplate that fits over a torah's cover. After reading the Torah, one literally "dresses" it before it is placed back in the Ark. From Germany, 1830s.

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In addition to the breast plate, a torah is dressed with silver finials placed over it's scrolled handles. Here, silver finials from the Netherlands, 1768, estimated to go at auction for up to $90,000.

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A silver filigreed book binding used to cover a prayer book.


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A silver Polish Chanukah menorah, very ornate, from the 1860's, estimated to go at auction for up to $180,000!!


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A prayer book used in a ritual circumcision, leather with gold tooling, Italian, 1750.


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From Germany, 1700's, a set of tools used by the moyel during a circumcision. Ouch!!!!!


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A pointer, used to read the tiny, handwritten Hebrew of the Torah. Usually, a pointer is gifted to the Bar Mitzvot. These pointers are passed down generation to generation to be used in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

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A Kiddush cup, or wine glass. A staple of the Friday night Shabbat service in every Jewish home.


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The interior of a synagogue, painted by Johannes Basboom during the 19th century. Note the brass candelabras and chandelier. The large box to the left, is the holy Ark that houses the synagogue's torahs. Also note the women are separated on the left from the men on the right, a practice that is still adhered to today in orthodox temples.


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Rare Derby porcelain figures of a Jewish peddlar and his wife, 1760s.

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A neoclassical Polish menorah from the early 1900s.


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An ornate mezzuzah. Commanded by God to be used to identify a Jewish presence in the house, Jewish people today continue to place these pieces at their front door. Inside each and every mezzuzah is a copy of important passages from the Torah, in miniature. Recently a new Jewish neighbor stopped by to meet me - she had walked up and down our street looking for the familiar Mezzuzah!


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An antique Passover plate. Used during a Passover service, or Sedar, the ceremonial foods are placed on a plate like this.


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A very elaborate spice cellar used to mark the end of the Shabbat on Saturday night. This ceremony, called the Havdalah, celebrates the reentry into the work week. A special braided candle is lit and the sweet spices inside are smelled to remember the sweetness of the Shabbat.


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A tzedakah box, or a charity box. Typically the mother will place coins in this box for charity. In olden days, a man would come around all the houses and collect this money for the poor.


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A pair of silver candelsticks, one of the more recognizable pieces of Judaica. At the beginning of each Shabbat, the mother will light two candles and say silent prayers before an elaborate traditional Friday night supper.

To see antique Judaica pieces like these in person, most large synagogues have museums which house these beautiful symbols of religious ceremony. Here's wishing all my readers either a Happy Chanukah or a Merry Christmas!!

Mimmi O'Connell

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White walls, symmetry, tufted ottoman used as a coffee table, ticking used for upholstery, black iron accents, seagrass matting: elements used over and over again.


In the 70’s - there was a designer in London who started a trend that lives on, 35 years later – the cornerstone of this trend was oriental furniture imported from the far east. The young designer combined these eastern pieces with large accessories: wooden boxes that doubled as coffee tables, bowls, blue and white porcelains, and eastern baskets, to name a few. She used mostly cotton tickings and rolled up mattresses instead of bolsters. Her beds were made of black iron and they usually were four poster. Her look was one of high contrasts: lots of darks and lights. She used red as a neutral, her walls were always white, her rooms always had black accents. Her look was new and fresh and very innovative. It still is today. Her name is Mimmi O’Connell.

Mimmi was never a household name in the United States. Most images of her work come from English books and publications. Through the store she owned, Port of Call, she started a look, the fusion look, that is still going strong today. She combined relatively inexpensive eastern furniture that she imported with inexpensive fabrics to produce a look that was strongly visual and rich, texturally. Through her design work, O’Connell was the force behind using seagrass and bamboo blinds in settings other than orangeries and sunrooms. Her look has spawned hundreds of imitators, her business helped launch others: OKA in England comes to mind immediately. Her use of cotton and linens and tickings is oft copied today – you would never see a room that O’Connell designed using chenille and mohair and brocades. It’s just not her style. Despite the enormous impact she made on design today, O’Connell rarely receives press or recognition for her work. Apparently, she’s still active, still in business, but it’s been a while since any current work of hers has been seen. So, take a look at her portfolio and keep in mind, many of these images are from years and years and years ago. And remember, the next time you see a room with an iron four poster bed swathed in tickings or oriental chairs mixed with bespoke upholstery on seagrass, give a nod to Mimmi O’Connell, wherever she is today.


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An iron four poster bed, hallmark of Mimmi's style. High contrast black and white.


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Traditional Mimmi: white walls, eastern chairs, blue and white porcelains, large, spare accessorizing

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The previous room seen from the other side. Large, tufted ottomans are often used as coffee tables.

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Heaven to Mimmi: rolled bolsters, blue and white ticking, plaids, iron furniture, seagrass. The striped poles seen in the corner are frequently used in her designs.

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High contrast black and white, iron furniture, highly edited spaces.

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Red is another favorite, as is wicker.

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Outdoors styling: black iron, oversized votives set a romantic atmosphere.


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Quintessential Mimmi: black iron canopy, white walls, ticking, plus white bedding.

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Her Italian country home in a restored school house.

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Mimmi at her best: symmetry, black iron, high contrasts, oriental furniture, tufted ticking, oversized accessorizing, baskets, corner poles, black iron curtain rods, and white wallss.

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Italy meets Zen.

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Port of Call merchandise: antique oriental furniture and accessories.

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Mimmi: iron day beds used as sofas, ottomans used as coffee tables, iron bistro chairs, ticking, tufting, garden seats, symmetry, oversized accessories.


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Again and again - her recognizable design.


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Here the architecture becomes the design: high contrast black paint vs. the ever present white walls, seagrass matting, reds mixed with black ticking.


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A Mimmi kitchen: eastern influenced chairs and table, eastern baskets and buckets, the plates provide the usual symmetry and black color, iron drapery rods, white walls, red checks for curtains.


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A departure for Mimmi: aqua painted chairs!!!!

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This room looks Rose Tarlow-ish to me. Notice how even in a library/dining room, the ticking is present, the walls are white, the symmetry is intact.

Names Can Be Deceiving: Shabby Slips

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Veranda's September 2007 cover story features Houston designer Renea Abbott and her work - a large, Provencal-inspired home built in California. The finished product is the culmination of years of toil: construction alone lasted over three years. This project catapults Abbott into the upper echelons of the design business, something she truly deserves. The "farmhouse," as it is referred to, is a study in timeless design - aged materials were used throughout and careful attention was given to the most minute details in order to ensure authenticity. The result of all this labor is a home truly deserving of recognition for its designer. Rather than doing interiors that are faithful to its farmhouse style, Abbott's choices are instead sometimes surprising and yet, always fresh. The front cover with the Cy Twombly over an 18th century mantel epitomizes Abbott's eclectic "look" - the modern mixed with the antique. Both ends of that spectrum are represented by sophisticated pieces. This type of design mix is familiar to Houstonians long aware of Renea Abbott.

Best known as the proprietress of the store Shabby Slips, Abbott has garnered much local press, mostly showcasing her own frequently changed dwellings. The store started out with a simple premise - slipcovers handmade to cover the plush, down-filled sofas and chairs that filled her shop. Everything was white back then, but things at Shabby Slips are different now. The walls are a deep, dark shade. Wonderful, period antiques have taken over floor space formerly reserved for the masses of cushy upholstery. In fact, slipcovers are no longer even offered to the public. The direction of the store, but not it's name, has changed completely and this is probably somewhat confusing to the uninitiated. Regardless of the misleading name, the changes at Shabby Slips could not be more gorgeous. Large, gilt chandeliers glitter over the gilded finishes of the antiques. Mid century lacquered pieces vie for attention with rustic oddities. Exotic lamps are fashioned from rock and crystal. The atmosphere in the store has taken on the air of an exquisite jeweled box. Elegance, certainly not shabby, is the key word here. Always in motion, Abbott has branched out with additional Shabby Slips in Austin and New Orleans. And in Santa Fe, her mother Barbara Carlton runs a store there with a decidedly different, more western feel. If visiting Houston, Shabby Slips should be a must stop on the antique shopper's agenda.


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Sparse, yet elegant hallway in the Californian farmhouse.



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The dining room.


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The master bathroom with the double shower placed behind the tub.


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Beautiful Californian garden with limestone table and Rose Tarlow chairs.


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Shabby Slips: gilt antique furniture, contemporary fabrics.



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More antiques with a surprising Global Views table.


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Crystal obelisks on lacquered trays.



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More gilt, more modern.



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A lamp with a modern rock crystal base.



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Another interesting lamp base.



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Finally, a sofa meant for slip covers!



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An unusual zebra upholstered chair.



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A typically untypical Abbott tablescape.


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The mix that Abbott is known for: slipcovered furniture, antique crystal chandeliers, rustic coffeetable.



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The old mixed with the new.



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Out back, behind a gate, through a back yard - Shabby Slips recently expanded into a neighborhood house.




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In the house annex, things are definitely more casual.



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Someone could move right into the shop's annex.



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Notice the rug from Creative Flooring. This is my favorite 'skin' pattern.



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Wonderful card table with a mix of chairs.


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I love how the curtains are tied back in this room.


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And lastly, Abbott's attempt at being hip: two pink, Palm Beach inspired chairs.



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Shabby Slips in Santa Fe - more rustic than the Houston locale. Religious santos and crosses are popular here.



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Antlers and horns are sold in Santa Fe with it's more western ambience.



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Slipcovers are still emphasized in Santa Fe, unlike in Houston. Two Shappy Slips staples: club chairs with linen slips and down cushions -the best combination ever!!!