Shopkeeper says Judaica store cured post-surgery blues

When Laurel Rest of San Francisco emerged from brain surgery, she needed a little mazel tov to speed her recovery.

That's exactly what she got after opening Mazel Tov Gifts & Books, a Judaica shop in the city's Richmond District. Rest had opened the store just days before doctors operated on a benign tumor lodged in her spinal cord.

During that same period of time, Rest's day job as an attorney shifted when she was transferred to Los Angeles. For two years, she lived in Southern California, flying to San Francisco every weekend to manage the store.

"There is a strong mission for the store," Rest, 50, said this week, the second anniversary of Mazel Tov Gifts.

"I feel it came about to help me pull through all this."

The chaotic sequence of events two years ago took its toll, however. The surgery paralyzed one side of her face for some weeks. While she is now almost fully recovered, she still receives physical therapy to regain mobility in her neck.

She credits friends and family for their support during the ordeal. Yet what really kept her going, Rest said, was her enthusiasm for the Judaica shop, a former Chabad storefront on Geary Boulevard.

"Perhaps all those prayers stayed in the store and helped me to recover," Rest said.

As comforting to Rest as the Judaism she was touting in her shop were thoughts of store promotions, what merchandise to carry, staffing needs and keeping the shop solvent. The constant planning kept her preoccupied with something other than her physical setback, she said.

Rest moved back to San Francisco in September. She maintains her full-time job as an attorney for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. because Mazel Tov's finances are not yet in the black. She still keeps a staff of part-timers to help run the store.

Whether or not the business turns profitable, Rest said opening Mazel Tov was more of a personal venture than a financial enterprise. An unaffiliated Jew, she was looking for Jewish connections.

Although she was raised in the Reform tradition in San Bernardino, her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi, and Rest's family kept some of his practices. They observed kashrut as best as they could in a non-Jewish area and carried on the family custom of Jewish folk-dancing during holidays.

Rest's father, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, taught religious school and trained b'nai mitzvah students in San Bernardino. Rest's brother became president of a Los Angeles synagogue.

Growing up in a household of religious contradictions, Rest said she has respect for all walks of Jewish life and their varied spiritual practices.

She strives to accommodate all of them by offering a wide selection of books and ritual objects that address the range of lifestyles and observance.

"This store was started out of love for Judaism and the community. Because of this love, it is my goal that everyone feel comfortable when they come in, whatever their practice is," Rest said.

She has opened a Chanukah shop at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and expanded hours at the Geary Boulevard shop during the holidays.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.