Ezra Gorodesky: Collector, Zionist, historian, philanthropist

What distinguishes him from most other collectors is his unique attitude toward his collections, whether of great or little value.

EZRA IN his one-room apartment in Nahalot, next to his portraits of his family. (photo credit: STUART GHERMAN)
EZRA IN his one-room apartment in Nahalot, next to his portraits of his family.
(photo credit: STUART GHERMAN)
We walked into the lobby of the King David Hotel anxious to finally meet the man we had come to interview. He was easy to spot; an elderly gentleman, regal in his sport jacket and red velveteen vest with gold buttons. He stood and approached us with a huge grin. He extended his hand and said, “I am Ezra Gorodesky. I have a rare and incurable disease: I am a collector.”
Gorodesky is known by many names; “The Generous Collector,” “The Button Man,” “The Kitchen Archeologist” “The Tea Man,” and “The Bookbinding Surgeon of Jerusalem.” Many articles have been written about him – not only here in Israel, but also in several other countries. Why do another article about him? We met Gorodesky and quickly discovered why. He is unique, fascinating, genuine and profound. He is a collector, a Zionist, an historian, a philanthropist and a humanitarian.
He is now 91 years old. At eight years old, he visited the home of an uncle and saw a lamp collection that included early American glass oil lamps. He was fascinated and told his grandfather, “I want to be a collector.”
From that time, 83 years ago, until today, Gorodesky has been collecting things. He started with American glass and went on to collecting all things associated with tea – including books on tea, tea boxes, tea kettles, and tea coins. He has a collection of over 1,500 family photographs dating from 1882 to 1970, some of which are hanging on the walls of his tiny apartment in Nahlaot, with the great majority catalogued in the National Library of Israel in Givat Ram. Gorodesky collects rare and old buttons, most of which he has donated to Shenkar College of Fashion and Design in Ramat Gan. Above all else, he collects old books and manuscripts.
After our first interview with him at the King David Hotel, we learned a lot about his collection and why he has been written about so often, but we needed to know more about the man himself. How does he live? What motivates him at his age to wake each morning with a passion for life and a desire to discover new things? We developed a certain trust after meeting with him several times and he invited us to visit his tiny apartment in Nahlaot. We arranged to meet across from Mahaneh Yehuda at 11 a.m. one morning.
Gorodesky is always on time and never forgets an appointment. He proceeded to lead us through the narrow, winding streets of the now-popular but once abandoned Nahlaot. He was dressed in a black cape, cane in hand and red velveteen vest, looking like a character from some bygone medieval time. We entered a small courtyard and approached a green wooden door that marked the entranceway to his world. He unlocked the door and it was a sight to behold. There were stacks of papers everywhere you looked, from floor to ceiling; shelves covered with tea boxes and tea kettles, miniatures of every kind, books wherever you looked, paintings, photos, documents and catalogues. Everything had its place, but you would never know it. What looked like total chaos was well ordered in Gorodesky’s mind.
Werner Muensterberg, the famous psychoanalyst, art historian, author and collector of African art wrote Collecting: an Unruly Passion. We found, after doing some research on his book, the things he wrote about helped in understanding the minds and motivations of collectors. We are all collectors, in a sense. From early childhood we collect things. The collecting instinct begins as early as infancy when a baby reaches for a security object that provides temporary comfort. This sometimes continues into adulthood in the form of collecting things that provide the same type of comfort that we experienced as a child.
The enthusiasm Gorodesky expresses over a newly acquired item is equal to the enthusiasm of a child receiving a new toy. At 91, he has not lost the joy that a child feels on receiving a new gift. There is this “unruly passion” that Gorodesky has that Muensterberg describes.
A COLLECTOR defines himself by the quality and value of his collection, and Gorodesky’s collections of rare manuscripts, tea items, and rare buttons has earned him a special place in the world of collectors and in the hearts of the Jewish people. Historian Philip Blum sees collecting as protection against death. Collectors, more than most people, deal with their inevitable demise by creating something that will live on after they are gone.
What distinguishes him from most other collectors is his unique attitude toward his collections, whether of great or little value. He feels that he does not own these objects but is only a custodian with the duty to protect these treasures so that they can be passed on to the next generation. That is why he is called the “generous collector.” He has donated most of his collections to more than 20 institutions, but his favorite place is the National Library of Israel, which houses most of his collection of old documents, photos, and manuscripts. He has had three shows at the library and we will not be surprised if more are to come. We accompanied him to the Library to view some of his collection. When they saw him, they rolled out the red carpet for him.
Gorodesky’s passion for old books, documents and manuscripts began at an early age. He was 11 years old when he purchased his first collectible book. It was an Italian book of tehillim (psalms) for children written in the 1860s. At the age of 10, in Philadelphia, he saw his grandfather opening the binding of an old book and extracting papers that had been used to stuff the binding. Gorodesky was fascinated and experimented himself and improved his technique over the years. He is now known as “the Bookbinding Surgeon of Jerusalem.” He has opened over 2,000 book bindings in his quest for old documents. He has discovered ketubot from Egypt and Italy dating back hundreds of years. He has found fragments of music and diplomas from 17th and 18th century Italy.
His most remarkable discovery came in two stages. In 1958, Gorodesky purchased a torn piece of parchment from Yemen from a dealer in New Jersey, which had the final verses of Chapter 5 of Genesis and the beginning of Chapter 6 written in Hebrew and Aramaic. In 1960, after moving to Israel, he found another part of the same page from this Yemenite document.
This was an astounding discovery. He also found two letters sent to the Arizal when the Arizal was in Egypt dealing with land holdings. These were addressed to Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi. Most of these precious documents and hundreds of others are now behind locked doors in the National Library of Jerusalem.
GORODESKY IS also known as “ The Button Man.” He has been collecting decorative buttons for years. He showed us a beautiful carved wooden button that is over 100 years old. He has also found silver buttons with portraits of Theodore Herzl and the word “Palestine” engraved on the back. He donated most of his button collection to The Shenkar College of Fashion and Design in Ramat Gan, where it is fittingly known as the “Ezra Gorodesky Button Collection.”
Judging from the many rare and valuable items Gorodesky has discovered over the course of his long lifetime, you would expect him to be wealthy. After all, he has discovered valuable manuscripts and books, coins and buttons and paintings and countless other items of great worth. Yet he lives quietly in a tiny apartment watching what he spends on food and travel costs. He once had a very old book of Sabbath prayers that he said was worth $100,000.
We asked him if he sold it. He said, “ I couldn’t do it and I wouldn’t do it because I’m my father’s son. You have to do what’s right. My father never approved of selling these books. The money is not yours.” He told us about the time he purchased a piece of American glass that had a crack in it. He paid $7 for it. In those days, $7 was a lot of money. His father became upset with him and told him he was foolish. The glass, he said, was worthless and told young lad to return it and get his money back. Although Gorodesky usually listened to his father, this time he did not. Many years later, he sold the glass for $35. He wrote his father a check for this amount and handed it to him, telling him that he had just sold that broken piece of glass. He proved a point to his father.
Although he is not a wealthy man, his collections make him part of something that is bigger than himself. His collections span time and space. The objects that he collects connect him to their history and the great people and events that they are associated with. Gorodesky dedicated his life to his profession and passion and maybe that is why he never married (he said he came close twice but it never worked out). He expressed regret that he never married, but in spite of it all, at his age, he is very happy.
A person’s collection says much about himself and who he is. He still derives much pleasure in the thrill of the chase and in discovering an item of great historical significance, especially those with Judaic content. You can feel the excitement that he feels when he talks about his discoveries. His collections are set apart from many others because of his method of obtaining rare documents from book bindings. We tried to get him to demonstrate his talents but we only got as far as the photos he showed us of his painstaking and unique technique. What he does requires great discipline and knowledge.
For Gorodesky, collecting is not just a pastime as it is for most people; it is his passion. It is so refreshing to see such excitement in a man his age. We all have our pleasures in life, and for Gorodesky collecting brings him the greatest pleasure. When you are with him, you feel that you are in the presence of a person who has great respect for the beauty in the world. His fascination with ancient China has been a passion in his life. The beauty he finds in a porcelain vase or a piece of parchment that is 2,000 years old gives you a deep understanding of Gorodesky the man. He sees beauty where we see just an object.
Not only does he collect objects for sentimental value and to obtain knowledge and understand history, but also to make a statement about who he is. Just last year, a nonagenarian, he went to China to visit three museums. He paid not only for himself but also for a friend to accompany him. He said it was worth every dollar to see the magnificent porcelains and artwork. The displays on tea, the ancient manuscripts, all of it gave him such delight.
GORODESKY SAYS he has been a Zionist since the age of two and a half. He would go to his great aunt’s apartment and she would tell him about Palestine and show him pictures. At 12 years old, he decided he wanted to leave the United States someday and move to Palestine. He did not like American politics and never forgave President Franklin Roosevelt for turning away ships of Jews fleeing from Nazi Europe. Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand, was someone he admired. He remembers that in a radio interview, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked which man she admires most. Her answer was “that little man – David Ben-Gurion.”
Gorodesky made aliyah in 1960 at the age of 31. For a while, he lived in Mishkanot Shaanim, which is now called Yemen Moshe. He also lived on the border of Israel and Jordan. He was forced to leave when the government decided to tear down all of the houses there and make the area a park. He spoke to as many politicians as possible, urging them to turn the area into an artists colony, a “craftsmen’s paradise.” When they told him that the houses were in terrible condition with no kitchens or bathrooms, he merely said, “So fix them up.”
One of Gorodesky’s most prized possessions was an Israeli flag made by Rebecca Affachiner. Rebecca had been one of the first graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary and her diploma had been signed by Solomon Schecter. She came to Palestine and she was in the Old City during the War of Independence in 1948. The people in Jerusalem’s Old City were under siege and no supplies were allowed in. Rebecca constructed an Israeli flag out of a bedsheet and a blue crayon. She hung this flag out of her window and continued to hang this flag from her window every year on the anniversary of Israel’s Independence. Gorodesky befriended and cared for her and she bequeathed the flag to him to ensure it would be taken care of. He had it for many years and eventually sold it to Ben-Gurion University for $35,000, which was much less than it was worth. It is now stored in a vault in Sde Boker along with 30 boxes of David Ben-Gurion’s papers.
Even at his advanced age, the anticipation of finding the treasure still remains, but when we asked him what he most wants to be remembered for he said, without hesitation, “as a kohen.” He wears a ring with the symbol of the hands of the blessings of the kohanim. We are truly blessed by all that Gorodesky has done. His collections are shared with so many others. Young people can view and study his discoveries and this will continue well into the future. Through his many donations, he is enriching the lives and imaginations of generations to come. Collected objects, for him, are like holy relics; they are like conduits to another world and guarantors of our immortality.