Orthodox move in on trading-card frenzy

iowa city, iowa | In a 1991 episode of NBC’s game show “To Tell the Truth,” a bearded Orthodox Jew named Arthur Shugarman had the show’s celebrity panel stumped: Was his job to help people get rid of their New York accents, or was he the nation’s only maker of rabbi trading cards?

Back then, few had heard of the cards — glossies that depicted Orthodox rabbis, both dead and alive, and had statistics printed on the back, just like baseball cards.

So it was no surprise that everybody on the panel incorrectly pegged Shugarman as the American version of Professor Henry Higgins, the dialect coach in the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion.”

“The idea that people would really collect rabbi cards sounded too fake to them,” said Shugarman, now a 49-year-old accountant in Baltimore.

The cards first came out in 1988, and 16 years later, Shugarman has sold more than 2.5 million cards in five continents through his nonprofit, Torah Personalities Inc. The cards, Shugarman said, serve as a “media that we, the ultra-Orthodox community, can use” to unify Orthodox Jews.

April marked the birth of Torah Personalities’ sixth series, a colorful set of 80 cards that took Shugarman and his younger brother, Laibel, four years and $40,000 to make. They come in packs of five cards and sell for about $1 in Jewish groceries and book stores.

Honoring, even lionizing gedolim — or great rabbis, from the Hebrew word for “big” — who interpret the Torah and determine Jewish law, is a fundamental component of Orthodox Judaism.

Like the batting average and home run totals printed on the backs of Topps and Upper Deck baseball cards, the first and second rabbi card series, though substantially larger in size than their sports counterparts, had their own “stats,” both in English and Hebrew: birthplace, schooling, denomination, location of yeshiva and Jewish date of their death, if applicable.

“There is no question that baseball cards make baseball more popular with the kids,” said Shugarman, who was a longtime collector of baseball cards. “Rabbi cards are meant to do the same thing” for Judaism.

But, and Shugarman stresses this part, the heroes of the Torah are meant to pick up where he says today’s heroes of sports falter: generosity, integrity and virtue.

“When I was growing up, we had players like Sandy Koufax, Brooks Robinson.” They were “really nice people, who gave to the fans and used to feel something good about signing autographs,” he said.

In the rabbi card “rankings,” a Feinstein card is worth more than, say, a Rabbi Nachum Mordechai Perlow (deceased, from Brooklyn), just as a baseball card of Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green is more valuable than a card of Red Sox platoon player Gabe Kapler (both Jewish).

At 5-foot-5, Shugarman, who’s been an accountant for 27 years, is soft-spoken and succinct. He wears glasses, has a salt-and-pepper beard and also goes by his Hebrew name, Chonon. He lives with his wife, Marsha, and his four children.

Laibel, 45, a mortgage broker, works out of Arthur’s apartment. Both brothers were raised in a Reform Jewish home in Baltimore but as adults converted to Orthodox.

Between 1964 and 1980, Shugarman said he became one of Maryland’s top card collectors, amassing more than 100,000 trading cards, mostly baseball, that filled an entire room in his apartment. He sold the collection in 1982 for $10,000.

As for excluding non-Orthodox rabbis from his cards, Shugarman said, “A real rabbi knows and lives the laws as handed down through the generations, beginning with Moses.”

And for how long does Shugarman plan to continue making the cards?

“As long as the kids want more cards and I’m not losing too much money, I’d like to keep it up,” he said.

The cards are available by writing Torah Personalities, Inc., P.O. Box 32514, Baltimore, MD 21282.