Remembering Ezra Gorodesky: Israel's 'kitchen archaeologist'

Aptly nicknamed the “Kitchen Archeologist,” Ezra Gorodesky perfected an art which he learned before making aliyah in 1961.

 SHENKAR SCHOOL of Fashion ihouses the Ezra Gorodesky (pictured) Button Collection.  (photo credit: Volume I: Ezra Gorodesky)
SHENKAR SCHOOL of Fashion ihouses the Ezra Gorodesky (pictured) Button Collection.
(photo credit: Volume I: Ezra Gorodesky)

Ezra Gorodesky was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a Jewish family who had lived in the city since the late 19th century. In his 30s, his father permitted him to travel to Israel for six months, after which time he wrote to his family, telling them, “Israel is my home.” He lived here for the remainder of his life.

Since COVID did not permit me to attend his funeral in January 2021, I want to say goodbye, as I miss him very much.

We first met in January 1978, when a friend and colleague whom I knew from Mercaz Zalman Shazar where I worked, asked me to come outside. There, I met a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a beard and a sparkle in his eyes. We shook hands. Ezra Gorodesky was his name. Over the next 40 years, we would become very close. 

Gorodesky was always on the lookout for Jewish artifacts – objects, manuscripts and books to enable him to gain an insight into Jewish history. He also afforded me a number of opportunities to write about him, something which he enjoyed and was richly deserved.

EZRA IN his one-room apartment in Nahalot, next to his portraits of his family. (credit: STUART GHERMAN)EZRA IN his one-room apartment in Nahalot, next to his portraits of his family. (credit: STUART GHERMAN)

Ezra Gorodesky: The "Kitchen Archaeologist"

Aptly nicknamed the “Kitchen Archeologist,” Gorodesky perfected an art which he learned before making aliyah in 1961. He opened bindings of old books and found Hebrew manuscripts inside, dating back to the 18th century. During his lifetime, he opened over 2,000 old books.

The National Library of Israel was the beneficiary of his work, receiving over 900 objects, books and manuscripts, all of which have revealed many new avenues in the quest for information about the history of the Jewish people.

“I began collecting when I was three years old,” he loved to tell me. His earliest interests were small pocketbooks which his grandmother gave him. “I loved to look at them and wonder where they were made and who made them.” That intellectual yearning moved into the Jewish field as he grew older.

Unlike his Ashkenazi parents, Gorodesky attended Mikveh Israel, the Sephardi synagogue in Philadelphia founded in the early 18th century. During the American Revolutionary War, Jews left New York when the British troops captured the city. They moved south and attended Mikve Israel, the only synagogue in Philadelphia. 

The most famous New Yorker to have moved there was Haym Salomon, who became an advisor to Robert Morris, superintendent of finance of the United States, otherwise known as the “Financier of the Revolution.”

WHEN HE was 12, Gorodesky became a regular attendee at the services of Mikveh Israel, where he also sang in the choir. He smiled as he fondly recounted the following story: “Most American Jews know that George Washington, a year after he became president of the newly created United States of America, wrote a letter in 1789 to the members of the Newport Rhode Island congregation, Yeshua Israel, which he had visited.” 

He also mentioned that George Washington wrote three further letters to American Jews in the year after he became president, adding:

“One of Washington’s letters went to Mikveh Israel. It was carefully saved through the years – framed and hung on the wall in the building. I became very interested in that letter, looking at it as carefully as I could, especially to see George Washington’s signature and writing.”

Another regular attendee at the synagogue was Dr. Cyrus Adler, the then-president of Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. Having seen Gorodesky taking an interest in the letter, he asked him why. “Young man, why are you studying that letter so intently? I have seen you standing there on many occasions,” he said.

Gorodesky unhesitatingly replied, “Dr. Adler, this is part of my American Jewish heritage. I want to be as familiar with it as I can.” The next time the two met, Adler handed Gorodesky a document, written by an American Jew in the 19th century. “Young Mr. Gorodesky, I hope you will study documents of this nature throughout your lifetime.”

GORODESKY LOVED to hear stories from his grandmother, his aunts and his parents, as his family had lived in the US since the late 1890s. They gave him old family pictures, which he preserved in albums. The National Library copied over 150 carefully annotated family pictures. Upon his death, the albums were gifted to the library.

Gorodesky’s other achievements, outside of his collecting successes, are less well known. In the 1960s and 1970s, he worked as a painter and collector in Bayit Vagan, Jerusalem, where he was inspired by Rabbi Pappenheim. He also worked separately with Cecil Roth, an outstanding collector, author and historian. 

During his work in various archives in Jerusalem, Gorodesky continued to find and purchase Hebrew manuscripts, old books and some paintings. From the mid-1970s until his death, he gifted a variety of documents and objects to the National Library in Israel and the State Museum of Connecticut in Hartford. 

Since he wasn’t a man of means, no one knew where his funds came from. He received an old-age pension in Israel and had some money from the sale of some of his duplicate items. 

He was a proud man who often refused my offers of help. On one occasion, however, when he had fallen and was in a lot of pain, he permitted Rabbi Stuart Geller and me to bring him food for Shabbat.

Gorodesky was a keen painter. He specialized in gouaches and miniatures, some of which were exhibited at his show in the summer of 1976 at the Singer Museum in the Netherlands.

The museum was named after the 19th/20th-century American artist William Henry Singer and his wife, Anna, both of whom were anxious to invite young artists to exhibit there when the museum opened in 1970. 

Although it is unclear how Gorodesky’s work was selected and there is no record of what happened to those paintings, it seems that the exhibition was well received. 

ONE OF the most precious items ever received by Gorodesky was the first Magen David flag created by Rebecca Affachiner, the “Betsy Ross of Israel.” While trapped in her Jerusalem apartment during the 1948 war, Affachiner fashioned the flag out of bed sheets and a blue crayon to hang from her balcony on Israel’s first Independence Day. Gorodesky recounts the tale as follows:

“Just after my aliyah in 1960, I knocked on the door of an apartment on Jabotinsky Street just across from what is now the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. I heard someone say, ‘Come in,’ which I did. Sitting there perfectly dressed was Rebecca Affachiner about whom I was to learn a great deal before her death five years later. A special gift, which she entrusted to me, was her handmade Magen David flag first flown in 1948.”

“Just after my aliyah in 1960, I knocked on the door of an apartment on Jabotinsky Street just across from what is now the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. I heard someone say, ‘Come in,’ which I did. Sitting there perfectly dressed was Rebecca Affachiner about whom I was to learn a great deal before her death five years later. A special gift, which she entrusted to me, was her handmade Magen David flag first flown in 1948.”

Ezra Gorodesky

Only once did Gorodesky permit the flag to leave Israel to be exhibited at the Schatten Gallery in Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, a special dinner was held, attended by Gorodesky himself to celebrate the exhibition of the flag alongside other items which also formed part of the exhibition. These included Bezalel olive wood items made by Affachiner, which were given to my mother, Anna Geffen, in 1934 in Norfolk, Virginia, before Affachiner made aliyah.

Prior to his death, Gorodesky donated the flag to the Ben-Gurion archives at Sde Boker. The flag will be displayed at Israel’s 75th birthday celebrations.

Unbeknown to most people, Gorodesky had the largest collection of tea paraphernalia in the Middle East. It includes teacups, tea tokens, tea ads and much more. The Wissotsky company, which asked him to put some of his collection on public display, acquired the entire collection for its tea museum after his death.

Generations to come will be indebted to Gorodesky for his wonderful tea collection, among many other things. As a close friend, I was privileged to see part of his collection – especially the tea tokens, which I found particularly fascinating. 

Another must? His button collection at Shenkar School of Fashion in Ramat Gan, dedicated in the last years of his life.