Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes: The Kiddush Cup ‘Fountain’
This is the second installment in a new monthly series, “Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes,” looking closely at the Judaica items that fill our homes.
Kiddush is one of those experiences that is nearly universal to Jews all over the world and at almost every level of religious observance.
Whether you do it every Shabbat and holiday, or only for special events, it’s likely that if you identify as Jewish, you’ve seen or said this prayer over wine that sanctifies special and holy occasions. Kiddush is something that features especially prominently in Jewish childhood memories: the spread of foods at synagogue following the rabbi’s prayer, the special time set aside for family, the childhood memory of that first lip-pursing sip of wine.
In my synagogue and home growing up, we would each lift our own small plastic cup of wine and recite the blessing in unison, taking a sip at the culmination of the prayer. But in more Orthodox homes, the (usually male) head-of-household says the prayer alone, including everyone present in his intention to sanctify the occasion. Afterward, in order to be fully included in the act, each person drinks the wine that was in this cup, either poured into individual cups, passed around, or, the objectively most fun of all possible options: poured into the top of a sort of merry-go-round-looking, usually silver object with narrow grooves cut into a plate-like surface, into which the wine flows through tiny tributaries into a set of smaller, matching cups that circle the base of the fountain. Eat your heart out, Willy Wonka.
Today you can buy all different designs of Kiddush cup fountain, with aesthetics ranging from ornate and traditional to post-modern minimalist. But despite the heirloom style and feel of many Kiddush cup fountains, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s older than the average millenial. “I’ve never come across one, actually,” says Director of Judaica at Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers Kerry Shrives. “I don’t think they exist as antiques.” And there’s a reason for that.
The Kiddush cup fountain was actually patented by an American-born Israeli silversmith named Michael Kupietzky in the mid-1990’s. Soon after, other Judaica manufacturers began producing similar objects (some with permission from Kupietzky, others not). According to Jerusalem-based silversmith Mordechai Bier (whose company has permission to use the Kupietzky patent), the new fountains sold incredibly well at first, then sales slowed a bit simply due to the fact that once a household had one, they didn’t need a second. Of course, people still find plenty of occasions to buy them for themselves and others. “People will buy them for a guest of honor at an event, or someone who made a big donation,” Bier explains. “Or they have a 50th anniversary and they buy a set for each of their adult children to celebrate.”
But though the Kiddush cup fountain is a relatively new invention, it represents an ancient Jewish ideal reimagined for modernity. “The interesting thing about Jewish ritual objects is how they reflect the time and place where they are made,” Shrives explains. She notes objects popular among Marranos, Jews living on the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages who were forced to convert but often continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret, that combined several items into a sort of Swiss army knife of Jewish ritual objects. The result was efficient, inconspicuous, and easy to take with you in a hurry, a requirement for those uncertain times.
In contrast, a Kiddush cup fountain is big, bold, and not exactly the type of thing that’s easy to throw in an overnight bag. This, too, makes sense given the times during which it was created. According to Bier’s website, “there were almost no Jewish silversmiths after the Holocaust and there was a need to fill the demand for silver religious items at that time.” People like Jizchak Bier took it upon themselves to begin to fill the void with new objects, to inspire the practice of ancient traditions. Others followed, including Michael Kupietzky and Bier’s son Mordechai. After such a dark time in Jewish history, here was a moment of renewed purpose. We had survived as a people, and were now free, in the newly created State of Israel and around the world, to worship and live openly as Jews.
The Psalmist states that “wine gladdens the hearts of man,” and there is a gladness that follows such a survival. It is bittersweet in its co-mingling of mourning for those lost and hope for the future, but it is also, in its triumph, a joy meant to be celebrated and shared. A Kiddush cup fountain assumes a large table, filled with family and friends proudly enacting their faith tradition. And that is reflective not only of the purpose of the Kiddush itself, but of a particular Jewish moment, one during which we have been mostly free to express our Jewish identities as we chose, one which we have perhaps, at times, even taken for granted.
Someday the Kiddush cup fountain will be an antique, a sign of a particular Jewish time and place, and new objects will be created to represent the continuing evolution of Jewish identity. For people like Jizchak Bier, who is over ninety years old and still goes to work to create these beautiful objects, it’s a labor of love and faith. Love for his craft and his family, and faith in the Jewish people’s ability to endure, to adapt, and to continue to pass on their traditions through the objects that represent their past, and their future.
Rachel Klein is a writer and teacher living with her husband and two children in Boston, MA. Her personal essays and editorials have appeared in Catapult, Hazlitt, The Rumpus, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media and more, and her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Reductress. Her current project is a memoir about the seven years she lived as an Orthodox Jew. You can follow her on Twitter @racheleklein.