Last month, Saul Jay Singer, 69, a Washington-based collector of Judaica, published his 300th “Collecting Jewish History” column in The Jewish Press. To mark the occasion, The Jewish Press spoke to Singer to learn more about the unusual and eclectic items he features in his column.
The Jewish Press: When did you begin collecting Judaica?
Singer: I started law school at age 36 and graduated when I was close to 40. As a graduation present, my parents bought me a collection of Israeli stamps, which led me to start going to a couple of stamp shows.
At one of them, there was a fellow selling autographed documents, and I was curious, so I started looking through his material and, lo and behold, I saw a letter written by a fellow named Moses Montefiore. I held it in my hands, and it was electric.
I started reading and learning and collecting, and now I have over, I’d say, about 10,000 items – all kept very neatly in one room in my house. And to this day, all these years later, it’s still a thrill for me. To hold an actual document, for example, that the Chofetz Chaim wrote – I mean, there’s nothing comparable.
Why did you start law school so late in life?
I was an actuary and working for CSC, the Computer Sciences Corporation. They had a rather anemic benefit structure – the exception being that you could pretty much take any schooling and they’d pay for it; it didn’t even have to be work-related.
I always thought it would be kind of interesting to learn the law, and I also figured out early on that you can’t really know what’s going on – even when reading a daily newspaper – without having a good legal education, so I went to University of Baltimore School of Law at night. And somewhere in my second year I became so enamored with law that I decided to change careers.
Where do you find all the items you feature in your columns?
I love stuff, but I realized when I started collecting that if I didn’t to stick to one area, I would bankrupt myself and have my wife divorce me, so I [decided to mainly focus on autographed documents]. I probably go through 10-15 autograph catalogues a month.
I find great success, though, interestingly enough – not in Judaica catalogues, which is where I get most of my stuff – but in non-Judaica catalogues where every once in a while I’ll find a gem that has particular value to me but not really that much to someone else.
So, for example, I picked up a letter signed by Harry Truman on the 10th anniversary of his recognition of Israel in which he writes that one of the greatest moments of his presidency was being able to facilitate the birth of a Jewish state in Israel. The guy sold the letter to me essentially for its signature value. I think I paid 100 or 150 bucks for it, but to me it was worth many, many thousands. It’s actually one of my prized possessions.
You just happened upon this item in a catalogue?
It was actually at a show. I went and perused and just found this thing in a box.
These shows are really a lot of fun, but I generally find them expensive. The truth is, I probably couldn’t afford a good portion of my collection now because what’s happened to [the price of] Judaica in the last 10-15 years is almost beyond belief. It’s getting harder to find bargains. People are becoming very sophisticated.
The availability of so much stuff online has reduced prices somewhat, but it has also really brought out really knowledgeable people who understand the worth of things and snatch things up. So it’s become harder. But it’s still fun. The chase is really fun.
What does an average item cost?
There’s no such thing. The common stamps in my collection cost a couple of dollars, but other items can run into the five figures.
What would you say is your most expensive item?
An August 21, 1943 signed letter by Raoul Wallenberg on his personal letterhead, which may be the only such letter in private hands in the world. I think the asking price was in the neighborhood of $30,000. That was way more than I could afford, so I put together a package of nine or ten documents – including a remarkable handwritten letter by Freud – and I traded for it.
I also own a handwritten letter by the Chofetz Chaim, which would likely sell today for $20,000, although I didn’t pay anywhere near that. There are typed letters from the Chofetz Chaim with his signature, but a signature is worth a lot less than a fully handwritten letter, and there are very few of the latter from the Chofetz Chaim around, so that’s really a highlight in my collection.
What other items do you own that you find particularly fascinating?
It’s really hard to pick. It general, it’s thrilling for me to discover fascinating Jewish connections that which virtually nobody knows about. For example, when I was researching a beautiful signed program I own by Marian Anderson [a mid-20th century black contralto], I discovered that she was a fervent Zionist who performed Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with the Israeli Philharmonic and sang the entire oratorio in perfect Hebrew.
I also own an original poem by Woody Guthrie [a 20th century singer and songwriter], and when I was doing research on it, I discovered that he wrote songs about Jewish history and the Holocaust, married a Jew, raised his children as Jews, and arranged for his son, Arlo, to receive bar mitzvah lessons from a young and dynamic rabbi: one Meir Kahane.
How many items do you buy a year?
It varies, and it’s slowed down considerably because, as I said, prices have gone so crazy. I’d say about one a month. If you include little things like stamps – which I usually buy for a couple of dollars to supplement the documents I own – then we’re probably talking about four or five a month.
How long does it take you to write your weekly column and where do you find all the information that you include in them?
From beginning to end, I’d say each column takes between 10-15 hours.
I do a tremendous amount of research. My own library is pretty good, but I also go out to the library sometimes or find stuff online. I write very quickly. The overwhelming majority of the time is spent doing research.
Is the research predominantly based on books, articles online…?
The answer is “yes” – it’s based on anything I can find. Sometimes I’ll find something reasonably obscure and sometimes I’ll just go to Amazon and buy a book for 20 bucks.
Items have great meaning and value to me. The siddur I use every day is a very small siddur my zeidy gave me when I was 10 years old for an afikoman present. Every time I hold it, and every time I daven, I’m channeling my zeidy. I feel it.
Same thing with the wine cup of my father, alav hashalom. I don’t know what it’s worth. Not much. But he held it in his hand my whole life, and here I am holding it today. Jewish items just touch me. I see the history, I feel the history, I live the history.
On that note, you mentioned in one of your columns that you’re related to Rav Moshe Feinstein. How so?
My zeide was Rav Moshe’s uncle. In fact, for my wedding present, Rav Moshe gave me a set of Igros Moshe which he personally inscribed with a mind-boggling beautiful beracha. He actually learned regularly with my grandfather, and in it he called my grandfather an “adam chashuv me’od” [a very important person]. I got chills reading that.
What was your grandfather’s name?
Shalom Katz. He was a very simple man. He wasn’t a rav. They called him “Reverend.” When he’d walk into shul, people would stand for him, but he never practiced as a rav or paskened for people. But he was the real deal. He was the uncle of Shima, the rebbetzin. That’s what we used to call Rav Feinstein’s wife growing up.