Driving down Whalley Avenue into Westville, a small neighborhood in New Haven, the landscape reads much like the rest of the city: CVS, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and, of course, Tommy’s Tanning. But slowly, rounding bend after bend, the store names begin to add character to an otherwise generic strip of roadway. The Westville Pizza sign, homey and inviting, welcomes the casual passerby, as does the unpretentious Westville Gallery — both helping to create a sense of community with their proclamation of the neighborhood name.
Beyond pizza and paintings, Westville stands as New Haven’s most prominent Jewish neighborhood, demonstrated, for instance, by three synagogues located just streets from each other. Similarly, both the Jewish Family Center and the Kosher Bakery and Deli (home to the world famous “Babkaman” whose specialty is the Jewish sweet cakes known as babkas) add to the area’s unique charm. But Judaica, tucked away at 1454 Whalley Avenue within an uninteresting shopping center, proves to be one of the most interesting pieces of Westville’s culture.
Though small, the store carries a wide assortment of anything and everything Jewish. From the more traditional Kiddush cups, dreidels, prayer books and menorahs — to the more creative “bubbe” picture frames, “world’s greatest nudnik” coffee mugs, matzah boxers, and even a line of bath and body products, “AHAVA”, made from the waters of the Dead Sea in Israel. Judaica also offers personalized goods: customized yarmulkes for the big B-mitzvah, hand-crafted Ketubot (marriage licenses) to commemorate the special day and tailor-made invitations for the parties that follow. Hora, anyone? And pulling the various items together, a surprisingly eclectic collection of books lines an entire store-wall. Jewish cookbooks and lighthearted words of advice (think “The Quotable Jewish Woman” and “The Jewish Book of Why, Parts One and Two”) share shelf space with intense theological texts and controversial political commentaries. Oy!
Barbara Hodes, who owns the shop with her husband, spoke of Judaica’s large following.
“Judaica is a very specialized store,” Hodes said. “There is only one other like it in Connecticut. People come from all over to visit us, from New York, from Massachusetts. We even ship to places as far as California and Arizona, areas without accessibility to such items.”
She continued, smiling with pride, as she told of a customer in California — now a “regular” — who collects the hard-to-find line of Ellis Island dolls. Hodes later alluded, with similar humility, to an article printed in The New York Times describing the store and its extensive collection of mezuzahs — cases holding a small scroll inscribed with Biblical passages and affixed to the doorway of Jewish homes. Fun fact: Judaica sells the original work of Robyn Siperstein ’00 MED ’04 whose handcrafted mezuzahs are a customer favorite.
Though entirely devoted to Judaism, Judaica appeals, Hodes explained, “to people from all walks of life.” While Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews shop at Judaica, Hodes said Jews are not the store’s only clientele.
Hodes laughed as she described “the whole Madonna thing,” referring to the ever-growing attention to the practice of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. FYI (for those of you now sporting the trendy red bracelets): According to Hodes, Jewish law states that an individual must reach the age of forty before attempting to practice Kabbalah. Sorry, Britney.
Far from judging her customers, Hodes demonstrates a more “you say potato, I say potahto” point of view. She noted the shifting role of women in Jewish practices, such as the introduction of the Miriam Cup as a complement to the Elijah Cup on Passover (though filled with water, not wine) and the increasing use of prayer shawls among the female congregants of Reform and Conservative synagogues.
John Weinberger, son of the Babkaman himself, reiterated the value of Judaica.
“Judaica is important to our neighborhood because it brings a cultural and ethnic sense of community to Westville,” Weinberger said.
Hodes said that some of the items in her store, especially the books, often evoke strong reactions. Orthodox shoppers, she explained, question the propriety of edgier reads on current events and abbreviated, simplified religious volumes. On the other hand, Hodes noted that less conservative Jews and newcomers to the Jewish faith are easily intimidated by the denser texts and appreciate the more straightforward works.
“We are not here to make a statement or judgment in one direction or another,” she said. “People are less intimidated, I think, and it’s important to me for everyone to feel welcome here.”