supp cover 10.23.09
supp cover 10.23.09

Afikomen owner hopes recession will pass over Berkeley Judaica store

Rabbi Chaim Mahgel likes to call Afikomen, the Berkeley Judaica store he owns, “your local Jewish lifestyle store.”

It’s certainly appears to be just that to many people. Open since 1991, Afikomen bustles with foot traffic, especially during the High Holy Day season.

The window displays feature kippahs made by Guatemalan Indians, mezuzahs crafted by Ethiopian Jews and paintings by kids at nearby Oakland Hebrew Day School. Inside, the shelves are filled with books, fine art, ritual objects, ketubahs and even bottles of kosher wine.

The slogan is just one of several innovations he came up with after buying Afikomen, located at 3042 Claremont Ave.,  in July 2008 from its previous owner and founder, Jerry Derblich.

Since then Mahgel has expanded the number of local Jewish artisans from whom he buys, and even started staging live music and meet-the-author events at Sunday gatherings he calls “Kafekomen.”

“Since I started, we put the event calendar back on the map,” he says. “It was my intention to create more community within the store.”

He’ll need it. Between the tanking economy and the dominance of online retailers like, Judaica stores like Afikomen have had their brick-and-mortar backs to the wall.

When Mahgel bought the business, the full brunt of the recession had not hit. But in the last year, the venerable Palo Alto Judaica shop Bob & Bob had to close its doors.  Afikomen’s sales dropped a scary 20 percent.

“People don’t shop like they used to,” Mahgel laments. “The store has to represent itself as a community institution.”

To that end, he wants to make Afikomen more than just a place Jews shop for wedding or b’nai mitzvah gifts. Once customers see the jewelry, candles, books and wine, they might want something for themselves, too.

Mahgel takes pride that the store serves the full spectrum of the Jewish community. He points to the extensive collection of leather-bound religious texts and a section

in the stacks devoted to LGBT literature.

Then there’s the “everything in between” section, covering everything from teach-yourself-Hebrew primers to biographies of Golda Meir. Said Mahgel, who remains the store’s principal book buyer, “A Jewish book store isn’t like a regular store. We keep a book even if it doesn’t sell.”

A Los Angeles native, Mahgel grew up in a Reform household, though he now refers to himself as “Renewodox.” He left U.C. Santa Cruz to study in a yeshiva and became an ordained rabbi in Israel. He has also practiced traditional Chinese medicine and lived in Australia.

More recently, he served as program administrator for the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University. Once funding for that position dried up, Mahgel answered a Craigslist ad for a book buyer at Afikomen (“They can’t not hire me,” he remembers thinking).

Once Derblich decided to sell, he knew he wanted to see the store survive. Mahgel stepped up and bought the company. That was before the nightmarish economic collapse late last year.

But Mahgel remains optimistic. He says he and his three employees all multitask, pushing a “buy local” and “green business” agenda.

“We all have a love of Jewish books,” Mahgel says. “We like things that reinforce our cultural identity.”

As for that ordination on his résumé, Mahgel thinks the work he does at Afikomen now would please his old teachers at the yeshiva.

“That’s the wonderful thing about being a rabbi,” he says. “If this is my congregation, then everyone is welcome.”

Beit Tzedakah gift shop will open 9:30 a.m. Nov. 1 in the social hall of Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Information: (650) 493-4661.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.