The button man

Jerusalem collector Ezra Gorodesky donates his tiny treasures to Shenkar College

Ezra Gorodesky and his button collection (photo credit: SHENKAR COLLEGE)
Ezra Gorodesky and his button collection
(photo credit: SHENKAR COLLEGE)
ABOUT 15 years after making aliya from the US in 1960, Ezra Gorodesky walked into the National Library on the Safra campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and asked to see one of the staff members of the manuscript department.
Quietly, but with genuine enthusiasm, he took out a small book, a wispy decorative ketuba and a handwritten manuscript – all authenticated and collected by Ezra over a 50-year period in Philadelphia, where he was born, and later in Jerusalem, where he has lived since making aliya – and presented it to the library.
Over the years, Ezra has given the National Library over 900 gifts, including Haggadahs from around the world, several of them handwritten; proof pages in Hebrew from the 17th-19th centuries; handwritten books and many other types of manuscripts discovered in bindings; unknown Hebrew books published between the 19th-20th centuries; and letters from American Jewish figures from as early as American independence in 1776 to the present.
“Ezra is a most unusual collector,” says retired manuscript department staff member Rivka Plesser. “He wants to place every item he finds and buys in a protected manuscript department or wherever the item belongs.
“Clearly, Ezra wants it further researched, following his own personal research, and to be made available for scholars to study. He puts no limit on the age of the seeker of knowledge who wants to study it. He began collecting at 11, so he knows that even a young person can be inspired to discover hidden treasures,” she adds.
Whether it be in a book, a magazine or even a poster, Ezra always keeps the pieces he finds for authentication.
He has had three exhibitions at the National Library, featuring items from his collection. Among them are documents found in book bindings through the centuries and a letter from an American hazan in the 1780s explaining to the parnas that he was trying to get Mikveh Israel synagogue members in Philadelphia to pay his salary.
A VERY determined collector, Ezra, 89, has set his sights on a new target: decorative buttons.
The first one he shows me is a papier-mâché button with a pearl inlay. “This comes from England, around 1860 to 1880,” he says. “How can you date it so easily?” I ask.
“I have cut out of magazines pictures of papier-mâché objects of all types. This but- ton fits in that genre,” he replies. He also shares a button that especially impresses me. The button, which arrived from Canada via the son of its former owner, has a tiny watch on it. Ezra tells me that royalty used buttons of this nature.
There is great joy in his face as he describes new buttons he has acquired, which he regularly donates to the Shenkar School of Fashion in Ramat Gan.
He shows me a silver button on which the face of Theodor Herzl has been carved. “This button and another that was done by the same artist were executed sometime between 1924-1935. When you look on the back, you will see the word ‘Palestine’ stamped into the silver,” he says.
Next, he shows me photos of numerous other buttons made from scans that are now at Shenkar.
There are buttons that have been found dated from over 4,000 years ago. They have been used for more than keeping clothes closed. Decorative buttons have a history of four or five centuries.
Ezra's passion for buttons began in 1951, when he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to New York to visit antique shops.
“I was walking on Madison Avenue and I saw buttons in a window,” he tells me. “Not the regular buttons, we sew on our shirts and our pants, but decorative buttons of all types.”
As is his wont when he sees something new, he bought a few, four in number, for 2 dollars each.
“I was hooked,” he says, “but I did not buy any more for the next nine years. When I made aliya in 1960, my family shipped everything of mine, except for my four but- tons. Not sure what happened to them.”
Over the last two decades, Ezra has been collecting buttons in earnest. One day in 2007, he walked into Shenkar and was directed to the head of the archives. He explained to the person in charge that he had decorative buttons which he wished to donate.
“Ezra has donated 250 buttons and nine books, which deal with different aspects of research in the field of buttons,” says Shenkar curator Tal Amit. “We are already using some of those buttons with our graduate students.”
The Ezra Gorodesky Button Collection, so named by Shenkar, will be housed at the college’s museum when it is completed.
I ask Amit what her take is on this particular interest of Ezra’s. “I think that Ezra col- lects buttons because he has love for these small items, which express the aesthetics of life itself,” she says. “Decorative buttons contain within them a complete history of various cultures and societies all around the world and many other tales.”
With the true instinct of a curator, she adds, “Ezra loves to find tiny collectibles that are unusual but which no one else cares about. Realizing the significance of the item, he tracks down information to help identify the piece and then he turns it over to us.”
Two graduate students at Shenkar have been studying these gifts. “We have one student who is doing research on a button from Japan,” says Amit. “Another student is studying an item closer to home. He is examining the history of a 1924 silver Israeli button with a portrait of the great poet Haim Nahman Bialik. This collection of buttons truly is a major treasure for us."
A GREAT LOVER of Zion since his youth in Philadelphia, Ezra has expressed that feeling in several ways. First, with his aliya in 1960; second, he has resided in neighborhoods of Jerusalem with diverse historical links; third, with his ongoing donations to the National Library.
In 1995, he donated to the library the largest of any of the items he has given over the years, an original printing press made in England in the 1860s. For the last seven years, the press has been on display on the newly renovated first floor of the library, where large windows face the university’s main campus.
“Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1930s, I developed an interest in collecting objects of various types,” Ezra says. “The easiest item to find and keep in the Depression years were small books, under eight centimeters in size. When I located them, my mother made sure that I kept them in my room, [so there would be] no insect infestation.
“Since my synagogue was Mikveh Israel, the oldest in Philadelphia, established in the American colonial period, it has deep Jewish roots in the US. The late rabbi Leon Elmaleh, our spiritual leader, encouraged me to collect Jewish objects and books.
“The real push came for me from the not- ed American Jewish leader and academic, a member of our synagogue, Dr. Cyrus Adler. In 1939, when he saw me looking at a framed letter of George Washington to the congregation hanging on the synagogue wall, he took me seriously, this gangling, 10-year-old youngster,” he recalls.
“Adler presented me with several Judaica items and wished me well. His good wishes have been an inspiration for me throughout these last 80 years.”
During world War II, Ezra’s father was a Philadelphia air raid warden. At his small flat near the Mahane Yehuda market, Ezra proudly shows me his father's warden card authorizing his service in the civil guard.
“I can remember vividly watching my father don his official badge, put on his hat, take his flashlight and leave the house for a patrol of a few hours. He was always on alert if needed. He fulfilled his patriotic duties in Philadelphia itself because he was too old to enter the military service.”
After completing his college studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Ezra worked at a museum and at the Daroff clothing factory in the 1950s.
During that decade, his interests in collecting Judaica began to flourish and he would scour the city weekly. “Real collectors know how to identify objects of worth in flea markets, at house sales. They trade as well. Also, the descendants of colonial Jewish families were still in Philadelphia and were divesting themselves of family heirlooms,” he says.
“Of course, my purchases were limited to a dollar or two. Five-dollar books were out of range, plus, my father thought I was ‘crazy’ purchasing these items. However, I persevered traveling to New York several times for other items, but I never bought any more buttons.”
In 1957, Ezra prepared an exhibit on Hebrew books of note for the Philadelphia Free Library. Included were Haggadahs, miniature books and various rare works of his.
“That was the first exhibit of items from my collection,” he recalls with great pride.
In the 1950s, prior to leaving America, Ezra developed a fascinating technique for uncovering “manuscript fragments.”As standard material for filling a binding was not always available, what binders frequently used was whatever they had at hand, including scraps from books, proof copy pages and handwritten items.
Ezra read whatever literature was avail- able on this topic and acquired the skill to identify bindings that might possess manuscript fragments. Then, over time, he learned how to open these bindings in a precise fashion so that the book itself would not be harmed.
In the late 1950s, he opened bindings of books and found in them material dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was then that he came to be known as a “kitchen archeologist.”
Ezra’s geniza (a repository for old items, usually religious) are manuscripts from bindings. As he left the US, he felt certain that in Israel there were bindings waiting to be explored. He has since opened a few thousand bindings and has had 250 major finds.
Indeed, his expertise in the field of “binding opening” is recognized across Israel. Two years ago, he was invited to the Municipal Library in Tel Aviv to open the binding of one of its rare books. A Tel Aviv weekly newspaper ran an article about it with a photograph showing Ezra at work.
When Ezra first arrived in Israel in 1960, he had planned to stay for only a month. Those 30 days have stretched into over a half a century.
In 1965, he rented a flat in Mishkenot Sha’ananim. He was the only Ashkenazi and American Jew living there, right on the seam between Israel and Jordan.
He felt at home because he knew that the noted American Jewish philanthropist, Judah Touro of New Orleans, had left $60,000 so that Mishkenot Sha’ananim could be built under the supervision of Moses Montefiore. The building was completed in 1860 and became the first Jewish residence outside of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
In the 1960s, Ezra cared for an infirm American woman, Rebecca Affachiner. An ardent Zionist, she made aliya in 1934 and helped found the disabled children's organization now known as ALYN.
Her major legacy is a Magen David flag that she fashioned from a bedsheet and colored with blue crayon. On May 14, 1948, she proudly flew her personal tribute to independence from her porch where she lived on Jabotinsky St. Ezra has preserved this flag, a national treasure, and helped her earn the title of Betsy Ross of Israel. That distinction was first granted to her in the press and then in many other historical sources, including the online Jewish women's archive.
THE SIX-DAY War is a memorable period in Ezra’s life. “About two weeks before the war itself started,” Ezra recalls, “I signed up since I had been an activist for Magen David Adom in Philadelphia for many years.
“Immediately, I went on active duty. One of my jobs was to take blood from the hundreds of blood donors. Since we worked around the clock, I remained at the main station in Jerusalem during this period, not returning to Mishkenot Sha’ananim. I was given a cot, and got in a few hours of sleep each night. We received wounded, gave them primary medical care and then ferried them to the appropriate hospital.
“We heard about some of the thrilling moments of victory over the radio, Kol Yisrael, but we never ceased doing our job.”
After the war was over, Ezra was released from Magen David Adom service. “Quickly, I made my way back to Mishkenot Sha’ananim to see what had transpired. What I recall as the scariest moment was looking at my small bed where I found a bullet. Thankfully, in serving my people, I had survived this struggle right here on Jerusalem soil,” he says.
After two more years of residence at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Ezra was asked to leave so the site could be restored. He lived in one other locale, and for the last 30 years, has resided near the Mahane Yehuda market.
In 1989, then-director of the National Library Prof. Malachi Beit-Arie wrote of Ezra’s donations to the library’s “Revealed Treasures” exhibit, “Ezra P. Gorodesky is different from most collectors who donate their collections to libraries and museums. He was never a wealthy man, but he possessed those special qualities which are essential to a collector of modest means: the right instinct, enthusiasm and a lot of patience... He is one of those special collectors who enjoys sharing his treasures with scholars.”
The exhibit catalogue featured a photo of Ezra opening a binding on its front and back covers. “I had always wanted my collection to be my gift to the Jewish people,” says Ezra. “For me, one key facet of the Jewish people is the National Library in Jerusalem. So I made my decision with various members of the division of Special Collections at the library and started to turn over selected items from what I had acquired. The gifts were welcomed, and to this very day, I continue to present new items when I feel that I no longer want to hold them in my personal domain.”
The National Library only displays Ezra’s donations in special exhibitions. Two years ago, at around Passover time, on display was a handwritten Haggadah from Shanghai from the early 20th century, which Ezra donated.
Ezra's devotion to collecting and donating are characteristics few possess. In his lifetime, he has made considerable efforts to assure that people in the future can know more about the past. In the last six years, he has been written up in many periodicals. This past spring, the well-known writer, Sarah Leibowitz Schmidt, penned a six-page feature about him in “Ami” magazine.
But the “decorative button” in this massive collection of varied treasures is really Ezra himself. His ability to find what most of us would not consider of worth is a God-given talent. May he collect until the age of 120, and be honored in some way by Israel as it celebrates its 70th anniversary and he approaches his 90th birthday.