People know Alan Dershowitz as one of the brilliant legal minds of his generation, a man who has represented some unusual clients, from controversial rap group 2 Live Crew to Rhode Island socialite Claus Von Bulow to “Queen of Mean” hotelier Leona Helmsley to Deep Throat porn star Harry Reems.
But the recently retired Harvard law professor and now winter resident of Miami Beach is also a devoted collector of Judaica, historical materials dealing with Judaism and Jewish rituals. He began collecting these artifacts on his travels, adding items when something — a Torah shield, a Kiddush cup, a painting — caught his eye.
“My wife,” he jokes, “says I have an incredible nose for finding Judaica. I always find the one stall that has the only piece in some big outdoor market.”
Space constraints, however, have prompted Dershowitz to put up about one-third of his collection for sale. J. Greenstein & Co, a Cedarhurst, New York, company that bills itself as the only house specializing in antique Jewish ritual art, is conducting a live auction on its website. Of the 236 items on the market, about 30 are Dershowitz’s.
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In Eastern Europe at one point there was more Judaica than there were Jews. I felt in a way I was rescuing them.
Items include a silver Torah shield from 19th century Poland, a Russian silver Torah pointer from around 1880, an early 20th century pewter Passover dish from Germany and a sterling silver Megillah case from Israel.
“Part of me is very ambivalent about this,” Dershowitz says of the auction. “I do a lot of research. I take them [the items] to experts. If it were up to me, I’d keep every which one.”
But he can’t. He doesn’t have the space. Dershowitz moved from a large house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a small apartment in Miami Beach and another in New York City. Many of his prized possessions have to either go into storage or be offered to other collectors. He chose the latter route “because I want them to be where they can be shown. I don’t believe in keeping things in storage. The goal is that they stay in places that people can learn about Jewish history.”
I want them to be where they can be shown. I don’t believe in keeping things in storage.
Jonathan Greenstein, founder of the auction company, expects the items to generate a lot of interest. “Each piece is unique and different,” he said, “and it doesn’t hurt any that these items were owned by Mr. Dershowitz.”
Greenstein is particularly fond of Item 143, an Olivewood Megillah Eicha case with the original Megillah, a scroll containing the biblical narrative of the book of Esther, traditionally read in synagogues to celebrate the festival of Purim. The 14-inch case comes from Jerusalem, 1887, and commands an opening bid of $6,000
While some collectors may specialize in a particular item — menorahs, for instance — or a region of the world, Dershowitz is interested in what catches his eye, but the item has to be both “aesthetically beautiful and have a special meaning for me.” Those two factors also inform his other collections.
He owns, for instance, a letter by Thomas Jefferson on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and historical documents on Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish artillery officer whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason later became known as the Dreyfus Affair. (Dreyfus was eventually exonerated.)
“I like the connection to the past,” Dershowitz explains.
Many of Dershowitz’s Jewish items were previously owned by Jews who were massacred in the Holocaust. “In Eastern Europe,” he added, “at one point there was more Judaica than there were Jews. I felt in a way I was rescuing them.”