Lost and found: the tale of the mystery tallitot
NJJN aids in locating family whose treasures were locked away
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
This is a story about a reunion — not of people but of a cache of Jewish ritual items found in a Christian thrift shop in Randolph, with family members amazed at the discovery of their precious treasures.
When Ellie Wasserman of Montville and her fellow volunteers at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Randolph finally found a skeleton key that opened a locked drawer in the ornate dining room buffet server that was on the floor, she was surprised by its contents. Inside were: two tallit bags containing tallitot with the names Michael Levine and Scott Levine embroidered on them, a Kiddush cup with “Scott Levine” engraved on it, a velvet bag with tefillin inside, a siddur inscribed to Michael Levine, and a letter to Scott from his grandparents on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. (The drawer also contained some table linens and a silver-plated serving bowl.)
After three months of searching, it was a photo and item in NJJN that led to the connection with the objects’ owners.
Wasserman, the only Jew among the half-dozen volunteers and staff that day at the Habitat for Humanity shop, explained to the others what the ritual items were. It was just before Rosh HaShanah, and she took it upon herself to try to find the family whose treasures had been inadvertently donated to the thrift store.
Her initial leads hit dead ends.
The synagogue mentioned in the siddur inscription, Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, closed its doors in 2017. Wasserman contacted the congregation it merged with, Temple Sinai in Summit, but they had no record of a Michael or Scott Levine. Wasserman put the word out to friends who had graduated from Livingston High School, to people in an art class she takes, to anyone she could think of who might have known these two Levines, but to no avail. She also tried Google, but, she said, “Michael and Scott Levine are pretty common names.”
Finally, in late November, someone suggested she take the items to Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey. Forgosh knew exactly what to do. She submitted a photo of Wasserman with a description of the items to NJJN.
Within days of publication in the Nov. 29 issue, word had spread. Larry Horwitz of Hillside, Michael Levine’s best friend, received two messages about the photo. By the time he called Forgosh and NJJN, the family had already made contact.
Someone in Florida — a friend of the family of Michael Levine’s son’s girlfriend — saw the photo in the paper and alerted the girlfriend’s father, who quickly texted the item to her. When Michael’s son, Sam, saw the text, he told NJJN in a phone call, he was “amazed.” As he recalled, he was hanging out in his apartment with his girlfriend when she got the text. “It was pretty weird seeing it in the New Jersey Jewish News,” he said. And also thought it was “pretty weird” that his father and his uncle Scott would have left those items in a drawer in a piece of furniture, unremembered. The opportunity to retrieve the items was made more poignant because Michael Levine, who lived in Morristown, passed away in February 2017 at 58 after a long illness. “That it’s from my dad’s bar mitzvah — that’s cool,” said Sam. “It’s a cool thing to have, and I feel lucky they found it.”
Scott, whom NJJN reached in Sarasota, Fla., where he now lives, was equally surprised — he thought he had his tallit. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “It’s terrific it was found.”
Scott graduated from Livingston High School in 1975, his brother in 1976. They became bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El, Scott with Rabbi Kenneth Rivkin, Michael with Rabbi Peter Kasdan.
The family has deep roots in Morristown, on both sides: one set of Scott and Michael’s grandparents owned a candy store opposite the Morristown train station, the other founded and owned Epstein’s department store on the Morristown Green, which Michael later owned and which closed in 2004 after 90 years. Epstein family members were among the founders of both Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, as it is now known, and Temple B’nai Or in the town.
In their letter to Scott that was found among the treasures in the locked drawer, his paternal grandparents wrote, in part, “As our first Grandson we give with pride and gratefulness this Talis which is so rich in tradition & heritage.” It continues, “Cherish this Talis daily, for you are one of God’s chosen children. May it become alive and meaningful your whole life and may it always protect you.”
Reached by phone in Sarasota, where he now lives, Bill Levine, 86, the brothers’ father, also called the turn of events “amazing.” He remembered the server, which was a fixture in the family home first in Livingston and later in Morristown. He called it “a beautiful old antique, but very heavy. We could never open that drawer,” he claimed. “We had locked it and lost the keys and forgot about it.” He mused, “We must have put all the Judaica stuff in that drawer and [later] not realized it was there.”
The server eventually made its way to the Morristown home of Bill’s daughter Abby Blaustein, when he and his wife, Carol, moved to Florida. Abby was the one who ultimately donated the furniture to the Habitat for Humanity store earlier this year. She will retrieve the items for the family.
Bill and Carol still get NJJN in Florida. “My wife reads it cover to cover,” he said. But she missed the ad looking for her sons.
In the meantime, the furniture sold, but not before Ellie Wasserman snapped a photo. “It’s so exciting,” she said of finally tracking down the owners. “I’m really delighted.”