a woman stands before a table of items, including metal cups and candle holders, examining them closely
Emily Baer appraising Judaica at Beth David's Judaica Road Showcase event in May. (Photo/Chris Cassell)

A flea market menorah: $4,000. Family memories: priceless.

They arrived with their family heirlooms and personal treasures, from candlesticks and a matzah cover to Kiddush cups and a marriage contract.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 70 people gathered at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga for a “Judaica Road Showcase.”  The concept was inspired by the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow,” where appraisal specialists travel the United States, identifying and determining the value of antiques.

Unlike the TV show, Beth David’s event was more focused on sharing family stories and learning about the art and ritual objects that congregants normally keep in their living rooms and curio cabinets.

Gathered in the South Bay synagogue’s social hall, participants placed their objects on black-clothed tables to highlight intricate details. Each item was accompanied by an information card the participants wrote describing the object and any known history behind it.

The event wouldn’t have been complete without an appraisal specialist.

Emily Baer, a personal property appraiser who lives in Marin County, said she’d always wanted to lead an event like this and was excited to share her knowledge of Judaica.

An antique Megillah brought to the Judaica Road Showcase. (Photo/Chris Cassell)
An antique Megillah brought to the “Judaica Road Showcase.” (Photo/Chris Cassell)

“It makes people so happy when they understand what these items are,” Baer said in an interview after the event. “It connects them to their ancestors since they share the same rituals. That is the joy when you are able to tell them what it is and they connect to them. It brings [the Judaica] alive in a way.”

Baer had asked participants to submit antique items to her before the event so she could conduct research. She presented about a dozen of the objects to the congregants, telling them what she’d learned about their place of origin, materials, artistic influences and ritualistic purpose.

The objects included a hand-embroidered Passover matzah cover from a congregant’s father in Brooklyn and a case that holds a Megillah, or Purim scroll. The case was hand-carved with images of Jerusalem and passed down from a grandfather.

One of the most fascinating antiques was a pair of silver candlesticks with molded pharaoh heads at the base of each one.

“It is not usual to see human faces on Judaica,” Baer said.

A note written by the congregant’s grandfather on the underside of one of the candlesticks said that an ancestor had made them in England. But Baer’s research led her to conclude that they’d been purchased from a German artisan.

It makes people so happy when they understand what these items are. It connects them to their ancestors.

One of the most valuable items Baer appraised was a Hanukkah menorah that a congregant bought at a Haifa flea market. The hanukkiah dates to early-19th century Poland and has an insurance value (that is, how much coverage you’d need to protect an item) of $2,000 to $4,000, Baer said.

A few of the items on display in the social hall were not long-kept family heirlooms but modern objects purchased or even crafted by congregants. One standout item was an ornate kippah studded with more than 240 Swarovski crystals.

While appraisers are trained to determine the value of items, the monetary figure often matters less than the emotional meaning, Baer said.

An item “has a value if it has certain provenance with a history and story,” she said. Even though she’s an appraiser by profession, working with Judaica is especially meaningful to her “because I love hearing people’s stories.”

For Baer, there is no way to discuss her upbringing without mentioning the Judaica that informs her memories. The Shabbat candleholders and challah cover from her great-grandmother defined her family’s weekly ritual in their Mill Valley home. The items helped her connect to her lineage, which traces back to Russia and Romania.

Baer, who is 44, pursued her passion for Judaica by interning at Christie’s, a world-renowned auction house, and later earning a master’s degree in Jewish art and visual culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Today, she is an accredited appraiser based in Mill Valley.

Hillary Farkas, a Beth David congregant, said the idea for the “Judaica Road Showcase” clicked last fall when she was watching a special Judaica edition of “Antiques Roadshow” with her husband and saw a young rabbi showing off her great-grandparents’ hanukkiah. Farkas decided to bring the idea to Beth David’s program committee, and the planning kicked into gear.

Farkas loved the idea of asking people to bring Judaica to a public event for others to appreciate the items. “I’ve been to homes of family members and friends and see things there that I wouldn’t see any other way,” Farkas said.

Tsadik Kaplan is a Judaica collector, certified appraiser and lecturer in New York who writes a monthly Judaica column for The Jewish Press, based in Brooklyn. He has hosted a similar event himself.

“A Judaica Roadshow can start a conversation about one’s Jewish heritage within a temple and community,” he said.

Judaica can speak to a family’s story of escaping Nazi Germany or illuminate someone’s memories of visiting Israel. “There is more to being Jewish in America than bagels and lox and New York Times on a Sunday,” Kaplan said.

Baer said she would like to collaborate with other Jewish groups and congregations to create similar appraisal events to help bring life to their Judaica. (She can be contacted at [email protected].)

“People recognize that there is importance in this,” she said.

Naomi Friedland

Naomi Friedland is a freelance writer and Bay Area native. She has degrees in Feminist Studies and Psychology from UC Santa Cruz.