Nearly 20 years ago, an old friend left me a voice-mail message, requesting that I call him back immediately. I heard a tone of alarm in his voice.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“What’s up? I’ll tell you what’s up – tchotchkes!” he shot back.
My pal, a longtime Jewish Museum of Maryland supporter, was deeply concerned. The museum’s new executive director, Avi Decter, announced he was planning an original exhibition on tchotchkes as his inaugural endeavor. (For the uninitiated, a tchotchke is a Yiddish phrase for a knickknack, trinket, doodad, curio, bauble or miscellaneous item, arguably of a rather pointless or worthless nature.)
My friend felt such a low-brow exhibition was well beneath the raison d’etre of the museum, which he viewed as sacred ground for local Jewish scholarship. He was concerned about the JMM’s fate under the stewardship of this aficionado of popular culture pap. He suggested I write an expose about the museum’s misguided new direction.
I told him he was barking up the wrong tree.
“I love tchotchkes,” I confessed. “Just ask my poor, long-suffering wife. My home is loaded with tchotchkes.” (By the way, my friend later admitted that he was “dead wrong” about the JMM’s “Tchotchkes!” exhibition, especially after major media outlets around the world ran glowing articles and segments about it. “Turns out that Decter guy is an absolute genius,” said my buddy.)
I don’t know when or where my own personal love affair – my wife would call it an “unhealthy obsession” – with tchotchkes began. Perhaps it started with being an avid baseball card collector as a kid. I used to have a faux mini-sports locker in which I kept hundreds of cards, divided up by the teams of that era. (Yes, I still have those cards, and no, I never snagged my “holy grail,” a Sandy Koufax, circa 1955.)
Some of the tchotchkes I own today are undeniably related to growing up in Baltimore. My dad owned a liquor store on Eutaw Street, a couple of blocks from the Bromo Seltzer Tower (which I thought was Big Ben as a kid). So inexplicably, I became obsessed with that quirky edifice and its accompanying stomach elixir, and now my home is lousy with renderings of the historic clock tower and those cobalt-blue bottles once brimming with Bromo.
I used to love visiting D.C. as a kid, particularly because it meant driving past the enormous statue of Nipper the RCA Dog gracing the rooftop of the old D&H Distributing Co. on Russell Street (and now sitting atop the Park Avenue side of the Maryland Historical Society). As a result, I now have my own fleet of Nipper figurines, salt-and-pepper shakers, piggy banks, postcards and other miscellany.
Then, there’s Mr. Peanut, that suave, dapper, devil-may-care legume rockin’ his top hat, monocle, white gloves, walking cane and spats. As a youngster, I loved going on family excursions to Atlantic City and seeing his quaint, smiling visage dominate the façade of the Planters Peanuts store at the corner of Boardwalk and Virginia Avenue.
Come over my humble abode today and you’ll see more Mr. Peanut memorabilia than you could ever dream of – or want to.
Horseradish & the Holy Temple
I’ve got other tchotchkes that tickle my fancy, including Jewish-themed items I’ve stumbled upon in antiques stores and curiosity emporia around town (or as my parents delicately branded them, “junk shops”). For instance, my shelves are lined with different types of dreidels and menorahs, and my old boss gave me a lovely silver Havdalah box. Another ex-boss gifted me a piggy bank fashioned in the image of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
When it comes to Judaica, my tastes tend to run more toward the pedestrian, gaudy and tacky. For example, I have a few vintage Israeli cast brass ashtrays from the early ‘60s – no, I don’t smoke — that reflect a sense of innocence, optimism and Hebraic kitsch during that period in the Jewish state’s history. I also have an old, chintzy horseradish decanter created to resemble an old-time European chazzan, or cantor. (A cantor decanter – get it?)
After acquiring the aforementioned cantor for a couple of bucks (I’m way too frugal to spend much on any schlocky novelty item), I proudly showed it off to a friend. She giggled uncontrollably and spat out, “Sorry, but that is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen. They should’ve paid you for taking it off their hands!” (Ouch.)
Most recently, I “rescued” a figurine of what I assumed was an elderly rebbe, from an Ellicott City antiques shop I frequent. The price tag claimed it was a “Greek mariner” (I guess because of the fisherman-style hat), but I was certain it was a rabbinical figure since he is holding a dark bag with a six-pointed star and fringes.
To my delight, a quick Internet search confirmed my hunch that the statuette – made of “dense plastic” in Hong Kong (does it get any better than that?!) – was indeed a member of the Hebrew clergy. Ecstatic, almost teary-eyed, I shared the good news with my wife, who merely shook her head ruefully and said, “Who cares if it’s a rabbi or a Greek sailor? Either way, it’s just ugly.”
She paused. “Oh, by the way, did I mention it would look absolutely marvelous in your office?”
As The Crow Flies
Sometimes, I must confess, I’ve wondered to myself over the years, “How did I get this way? Where does this pathological love of tchotchkes come from? Why the affection and high regard for such useless, inane, some would even say repulsive objects that strangers discard like so much flotsam and refuse? What am I really searching for? And will I ever recover from this chronic malady?”
Some friends and associates attribute it to a lack of taste, style or class. Fair enough. Others cite a penchant for extreme garishness, or a deep-seated desire to return to the halcyon days of my youth. Could be. Yet others attribute it to being a hopeless miser with way too much time on my hands. (Again, ouch.)
Well, with all apologies to Doc Freud and his ilk, I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I no longer psychoanalyze my affinity for all things decidedly tchotchke. Instead, I accept this is who I am and what I enjoy. It could be worse, right?
And to loosely paraphrase the always wise and lovely Sheryl Crow, if tchotchkes make you happy, they can’t be that bad.
Viva la tchotchke!