The Collector

“My work represents the next stage of religious Zionism, where the emphasis shifts from pioneering the land to pioneering our culture to be in harmony with our presence,” says artist Reuven Prager

Reuven Prager (photo credit: Courtesy)
Reuven Prager
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In Reuven Prager’s apartment across from Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, a visitor will find a large assortment of oddities that Prager has accumulated over the past 28 years.
The object that dominates the scene is his faithful recreation of the apirion bridal litter and Jerusalem of Gold bridal crown, as described in The Song of Songs. Then there are samples of his Beged Ivri line of Jewish attire from the First Commonwealth, sold by appointment and online; little bags of specially minted half-shekel coins for the protection of IDF soldiers; shell and stamp collections; a full-size flag of the Tribe of Levi, designed according to the biblical description; and a 213 x 150-centimeter Holocaust artwork painted on canvas with the dying artist’s blood.
The 56-year-old Miami native dedicates most of his time to researching and restoring ancient Israelite customs.
“My work represents the next stage of religious Zionism, where the emphasis shifts from pioneering the land to pioneering our culture to be in harmony with our presence in the land,” Prager says.
“Everything we do in contemporary Judaism is a remembrance of something we used to do,” he continues. “When we were exiled from our land, we lost our ability to fulfill 93 percent of our religious customs. We created remembrances so that when we would merit returning to our land, we’d remember how to restore them. Over 2,000 years of galut [exile], we forgot we’re not doing it for real.”
Beged Ivri was Prager’s first project, established in 1983.
“I restored our native Israelite dress so that those of us who return to the land can begin to dress like we live here,” he says. “Black hats and coats are cute. They’re nostalgic. But our ancestors didn’t fulfill the commandment of tzitzit [ritual fringes] on a rag underneath goyishe clothes or on a prayer shawl. We wore tzitzit as a beautiful outer garment.”
When he served in the IDF in his mid- 20s, he was court-martialed for altering his uniform shirts into four-corned garments with ritual fringes. Nevertheless, he finished his two and a half years of service with sergeant stripes.
PRAGER’S PATH from a relatively non-religious Conservative family in Miami to upholder of biblical customs in Jerusalem is long and winding. In 1974, he had the opportunity to participate in a 10-week session of High School in Israel, then at Beit Berl, outside Kfar Saba. Though the program was not religiously oriented, the kids were shown the land through the lens of the Bible and Jewish history.
“I came home with a tremendous amount of Jewish energy and pride, but nowhere to channel it, so I joined the JDL [Jewish Defense League],” he says.
He got arrested at a JDL demonstration for Soviet Jewry, and then became involved with Chabad during a brief stint at the University of Miami. When he told the campus Chabad rabbi that he’d decided to make aliya, the rabbi advised him to go to yeshiva there.
“So I went to Coconut Grove and bought a three-piece white suit – what did I know?” he recalls with a laugh.
“You can imagine that suit didn’t see the light of day until Purim.”
Two and a half years later he emerged from the Lubavitch yeshiva in a black suit and hat. He was married at 20 and divorced at 23, and has a 34-year-old daughter living in New York. Following his divorce, he left Chabad and began researching ancient Jewish customs and rituals. He started Beged Ivri around the time he started the army.
Prager’s next project was Biblical Weddings, officially kicked off during Hanukka 1992 with an event at the Bible Lands Museum.
“It used to be we’d crown our brides with a Jerusalem of Gold bridal crown, and we’d carry them to the wedding on a royal wedding litter called an apirion,” he explains.
With backing from a Connecticut rabbi whose daughter was the first Biblical Weddings customer, Prager built an apirion and hired 10 strong IDF veterans to carry it (wearing Beged Ivri duds, naturally), to the accompaniment of shofar- blowers and harpists.
“God is a third partner under the huppa of every Jew, Christian and Muslim who gets married, and what better place to perform your wedding than in Jerusalem? Come to God’s town instead of Las Vegas or Jamaica to do your wedding or anniversary,” goes his sales pitch.
Indeed, about 100 couples – mainly secular Israelis – have each paid about $1,500 for a Biblical Wedding. Prager would like to see the Tourism Ministry turn his niche business into a major attraction, proposing a contest to entice additional enterprising Israelis follow his lead.
“To offer this on a national scale, you’d need hundreds of teams, and you could bring in the jewelry industry and the fashion industry, too. There’s no reason we can’t create a God-centered wedding-honeymoon-anniversary industry worth millions of dollars a year – but I can’t do it by myself,” he says.
In 1998, Prager started his Holy Half-Shekel project.
“We’re commanded in Exodus 30 to give half a shekel as atonement for our souls prior to each pilgrimage festival,” he explains. “Today, we do this symbolically by giving a half ruble or a half dollar to tzedaka [charity].”
Prager read up on the history of this practice in the First Temple period, when a shekel was a silver piece of specific weight, and started minting 7.76- gram coins like those the Jews minted in Jerusalem between 19 and 65 CE.
“Eight years ago, I started offering a special package of half shekels for soldiers.
This [as described in the Bible] was the world’s first insurance policy – if you shed blood during war, it wouldn’t tarnish your soul because the half-shekel atones for your soul,” Prager says. “I hand them to soldiers for free, and donors get a certificate attesting to that.”
Buy a book of 10 receipts from shekelIDF.
org or recruit 10 people to sponsor an IDF soldier and you’ll receive a t-shirt with Prager’s logo on the front, and on the back the letters “FBI,” for “Friends of Beged Ivri.”
“My supporters are FBI agents,” he quips.
LOTS OF other projects are brewing in the apartment. Prager is creating a calendar for the Third Temple era and has bottled 11 of the essential oils used in the Temple incense, which he takes to schools for educational purposes.
“In galut, we knew the names of the herbs and the percentages, but we had no idea what they smelled like,” he says.
Prager’s extensive shell collection from around the world did not start out with a religious connection.
“I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau movies, thinking I was going to be an oceanographer. I had a huge shell collection and I brought it to Jerusalem.
I’d like to create a museum someday in Jerusalem, with shells, bugs and fish to show what God has created,” he says.
He’s also a lifelong stamp collector.
“My dream from the age of seven has been to be [on] a stamp. I’m pretty sure I’ve made stampdom,” he muses.
Indeed, perhaps a half-shekel stamp would be a perfect way to pay tribute to Reuven Prager’s life work.