The Shop Around the Corner...From Your Sanctuary: Sisterhood Gift Shops and the NFTS Campaign for Home Observance

Joellyn Wallen Zollman

In 1947, The Temple sisterhood in Augusta, Georgia earned a spot in the "Bright Ideas" section of the NFTS national newsletter, Topics and Trends, for organizing a "gift mart featuring distinctive Jewish gifts for all occasions with profit from sales reverting to the sisterhood treasury." The “Bright Ideas” section of Topics and Trends featured innovative, successful ideas from sisterhoods across the country that the editors felt other sisterhoods might also be able to use. In this case, the editors had hit upon a winner. The "bright idea" of a gift mart featuring Judaica, the sale of which benefitted the congregation, caught on quickly in post-war North American Judaism, so that one year later, in 1948, the task of organizing and promoting sisterhood gift shops was made part of the national agenda of NFTS. Over the next decade, synagogue gift shops became "a sisterhood institution" in Reform congregations.  

This sort of development – the quick and complete adoption of sisterhood gift shops across the Reform movement – makes historians sit up and take notice. Why this idea? What was it about gift shops that made them so appealing to NFTS leaders and sisterhood members?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at NFTS records from the period. These records show that the leadership made gift shops part of the work of the Committee on Jewish Art and Ceremonials, which was under the direction of the NFTS Department on Religion and Education. What does this tell us about gift shops? It tells us that they were NOT, in the minds of sisterhood leaders, primarily a fundraising device. Remember the gift mart in Augusta, Georgia? That was a fund-raising idea. But, clearly, on the North American level, sisterhood leaders saw the potential for a more valuable result from the gift shops. They could raise money, and they could also help to raise Jews.

Gift shops provided building blocks for a Jewish home. Mezuzot and menorahs, plastic dreidels and Passover chocolate, Israeli souvenirs and American Jewish records, cookbooks, prayer books, and children’s books all helped to build a sense of history, ceremony and celebration in a Jewish household. For this reason, the shops, which regularly stocked all of these items, were a powerful part of the NFTS home observance program. Sisterhood leaders purposefully paired gift shops with family education to create a home observance curriculum that armed Jewish women with both the knowledge and tools to create up-to-date and observant American Jewish homes.

The shops experienced swift success among NFTS affiliates because they addressed a need for accessible, modern Judaica in the Jewish community. Not only were sisterhood shops meant to enact NFTS goals in the areas of Jewish education and home observance, they were also designed to supply a rapidly growing and suburbanizing North American Jewish community with the tools for creating an aesthetically-pleasing Jewish home. A 1953 NFTS circular to all chairs of local Jewish Ceremonials and Art committees describes exactly this situation. The letter reads:

Recently, a Sisterhood member explained her difficulty in orienting herself in a new community. She didn’t complain of a housing shortage or deprivation in Temple or Sisterhood contacts. Rather, her concern centered on how difficult it was to buy anything of Jewish significance in her new community. Her new sisterhood had no Judaica shop. She felt the lack keenly. (“To All Chairmen on Jewish Ceremonials and Art,” August–September 1953, MS-73, box E-16, folder 2, AJA.)

The post-war economic boom and accompanying rise in disposable income contributed to an increased demand for Jewish ritual objects, especially for use in life-cycle events, like b’nai mitzvah and weddings. In addition, post-war suburban Jews expressed renewed interest in certain child-centered home rituals, like Hanukkah and Passover. These developments contributed to sisterhoods’ motivation to set up shops where Jewish women could purchase attractive Judaica to give as gifts or use in their own homes.

One of the most attractive, best-selling objects in the sisterhood shops during the 1950s and 1960s was the plastic, electric Hanukkah menorah. While this object might strike us as commonplace, even tacky, today, it was positively cutting edge for its materials and technology in the post-war period. Produced by companies like Holiday Bell Corporation and North American Electric Lamp Company, plastic, electric menorahs offered a modern, mess free (no drippy candles!) Jewish December decoration. Rabbi Dr. Samuel Markowitz, who authored the lion’s share of NFTS’ parenting curriculum during this period, urged Jewish mothers to employ technology and tradition, electric light and candlelight, to produce a memorable home Hanukkah celebration because “nothing will give children greater Jewish loyalty and more Jewish stamina than memories of such events.” (Samuel H. Markowitz, Adjusting the Jewish Child to His World. New York: NFTS, 1961, 5.)

In addition to cultivating the Jewish future, buying a plastic electric menorah in her synagogue gift shop and then using it in her home allowed the Jewish mother to embrace American middle class consumerism and Judaism at present. She could achieve that often elusive sense of American-Jewish balance in her household by simultaneously being a part of the December holiday season (by lighting the lights) and standing apart from it (by displaying the menorah).

In this sense, the plastic electric Hanukkah menorah illuminates gift shop goals. Gift shops sold these menorahs because the objects were appealing, up-to-date tools for home celebration. Plastic, electric menorahs made Hanukkah more modern and more American. These objects weren’t expensive, but their impact was potentially priceless: the creation of wonderful home Hanukkah experiences and memories.

Reform sisterhoods founded and operated synagogue gift shops in the post-war period as part of their home observance program. Sisterhoods sponsored family and festival education programs that gave Jewish women knowledge about Jewish history and home observance. The shops provided sisterhood members with the tools to enact this knowledge. Objects like the plastic, electric menorah left the shelves of the sisterhood gift shop and entered the North American Jewish home with the potential to adorn as well as educate, and ultimately, perpetuate Jewish culture.

Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University. Her dissertation, completed in 2002, is a history of American synagogue gift shops. This topic incorporates two of her areas of specialization, Jewish art and Jewish history. Professionally, Dr. Zollman has worked with the Jewish material culture collections at the Smithsonian Institute, the Skirball Museum, and the American Jewish Historical Society.

The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Mike Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.

Published: 11/26/2013

Categories: Arts & Culture, Local Stories, Our History