Photo Credit: Rabbi Zev Eleff
Rabbi Zev Eleff

In the summer of 1988, Rabbi Mordechai Nissel spotted a novelty item near the cashier’s station at a Jewish bookstore in Baltimore. The opened box revealed a bounty of cellophane-wrapped rabbi cards, each one retailing for just about 80 cents a pack. The fourth grade teacher was on vacation, almost 400 miles away from his classroom in the Providence Hebrew Day School. But his mind was on his students and the cards’ clever slogan captivated him: “Collect Full Sets. Trade With Friends, Learn About Torah Leaders.” The scheme was a simple one to decode, no Talmudic logic needed: revere rabbinic superstars, not baseball all-stars.

Rabbi Nissel was unsure. Could rabbi cards become a denomination of classroom currency, a reward for good behavior and test scores? The store manager informed him that the rabbi cards were all the rage in Baltimore, especially among 8- to 15-year-old boys. Nissel remained unconvinced. After all, the Baltimore Orioles were downright woeful. They had begun that season a dreadful 0-21. The season-long slump was surely enough for local Orthodox youngsters to abandon baseball cards for any alternate card collecting hobby.

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But the phenomenon had moved beyond the Chesapeake. Rumor had it that eager boys had already purchased packs and packs of the Torah Personalities cards and that its creator, Arthur Shugarman, was planning a larger second series. The customer was still incredulous. Then the manager informed the patron that he was authorized to offer a half-price discount to Orthodox day schools. Nissel was sold. He brought a case of cards back to Rhode Island.

Sure enough, the first 36-card series produced by the non-profit Torah Personalities, Inc. sold out in about six months. Partnering with a kosher candy distributor, Shugarman sold 400,000 packages in a variety of Orthodox-dense locales. In Miami, for example, the owner of Judaica Enterprises found it “unbelievable how many calls I’ve been getting about the rabbi cards.” He seized on the demand and ordered 288 packs of Shugarman’s trading cards. Concomitantly, a Judaica dealer in Detroit estimated that among the 10,000 Orthodox Jews in his area, perhaps a little under two-thirds constituted the considerable market for rabbi cards. The principal of a day school in Philadelphia corroborated all of this in terms that her young students might have used: “The gedolim are very popular, very hot.”

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What accounted for this success? The card inventor shot down any claim that his was a lofty mission to synthesize Judaism and American culture. In fact, he would have probably played down his role as an “inventor” altogether. Shugarman was the first to admit that his product was not the stuff of sheer innovation. “In New York City,” he once told an interviewer, “the selling of pictures of rabbis had gone on for some time.”

front-page-012717-rav-rudermanShugarman, 34, knew his market well. In 1980, the youth division of Agudath Israel of America produced a 35-card series of photocards of “Gedolei Yisrael.” The set featured black-and-white cards of deceased European-born rabbis, all at one point or another institutionally connected to or politically in sync with the haredi yeshiva world.

A brief biography appeared on the back of each card, sometimes to justify the inclusion of some gedolim into this prestigious collection. Consider the pithy text that accompanied Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s portrait: “Met the formidable challenge to the very basis of Jewish living posed by the ‘modern era’ with the religious philosophy of ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz.’ This maxim was the proclamation of the sovereignty of the Torah within any given civilization. Author of ’19 Letters,’ ‘Choreb,’ and commentary on Chumash and T’hillim.”

The transformation of Rabbi Hirsch into an anti-modernist was dubious, of course. But his separatism and staunch opposition to liberal forces were unquestionable, thereby affirming his status, according to the card’s “statistics,” as a “Forerunner of Agudath Israel.”

Overseas, the most fervently righteous in Israel also collected. In the mid-1980s, Shmiel Shnitzer’s Photo Geula was one of a half-dozen stores in Jerusalem that peddled rabbi photos. The clerical photographs were neither serialized nor systematized; just well-disseminated images of rabbis usually snapped by photographers at public gatherings, perhaps a circumcision or wedding. Hardly a hindrance, the informality of these pictures added to the intrigue.

In Shnitzer’s shop, most images were sold for the shekel equivalent of a dollar. Some, though, were slightly more expensive. In particular, chassidic rabbis garnered much interest. For a time, young yeshiva men paid top dollar for a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe until too many copies were produced and flooded the market. The Amshinover Rebbe, who did not approve of his image commercialized in this manner, was perhaps the priciest photograph.

Posthumousness also increased the value of a rabbinic photograph. For instance, when the Lelover Rebbe passed away, the proprietor of Geula Photo “printed up 100 pictures of him right after I heard” and sold out the same day. According to the Orthodox position, contemporaries generally pale in comparison to their forebears. In death, though, the Lelover Rebbe sat beside Moses, Hillel, Maimonides, and the Gaon of Vilna.

Arthur Shugarman’s Torah Personalities cards did not compete with venders and photographers in the rabbi card markets. Instead, his cards joined them. For this reason, Shugarman printed cards in 4-by-6 inch format, much bulkier than a standard 2½-by-3½ inch baseball card, meant to fit comfortably in the palms of young collectors. To some, this made the rabbi cards appear amateurish, an awkward kind of collectable. Still, Shugarman preferred the Kodak-regulation images that better resembled the “real photographs” that had “caught on big” in certain Orthodox circles.

Torah Personalities cards were also blessed with propitious timing. Between 1975 and 1980, the number of “serious” baseball card collectors rose from 4,000 to 250,000 in the United States. By the close of the decade, three to four million Americans collected sports cards to some degree or another. The exponentially rising interest in the collectables inspired upstarts like Fleer and Upper Deck to more vigorously complete with the longtime standard-bearer, Topps. Shugarman launched Torah Personalities in August 1988, in the midst of the trading card boom.

For some, the rabbi cards were sufficient to displace baseball stars. Other boys did not abandon sports cards but treated their rabbi cards with a decided degree of reverence. Children did not flip them or ding the corners.

Far more often, Orthodox children traded endogamously, rabbi card for rabbi card. The editors of Time magazine were correct that the “most coveted” card was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of New York’s Lower East Side, who sat comfortably and unquestionably atop the Orthodox rabbinic power rankings and whose trading card likeness was unavailable for a mere one-to-one swap.

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Shugarman was aware of the fast-growing market for trading cards. He knew it well from a previous life, before he entered the Orthodox fold. As a youngster in Baltimore, Shugarman collected coins, figurines, and stamps but baseball cards were his truest passion. Hometown hero Brooks Robinson was Shugarman’s favorite card to collect. They shared much in common. Both were mild-mannered, dependable men. Robinson used those qualities to become the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” the most dependable third-baseman in professional baseball. At 5”5, Shugarman was in no position to succeed his idol, so he found his way into accounting, an honorable profession for a trusty kind of man.

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Rabbi Zev Eleff is chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and an editor at Lehrhaus (www.thelehrhaus.com), where a somewhat longer version of this article originally appeared under a different title. He is the author of six books and dozens of scholarly articles in the field of American Jewish history. His Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford) and Modern Orthodox Judaism (JPS) both appeared in 2016 and were National Jewish Book Award finalists.