By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Ora Aaron is engaging in far more than a sentimental journey by bringing Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, one of Chicago’s last retail outlets for Jewish books and Jewish ceremonial and cultural items, back into her family for a third generation.
Aaron and operating co-owner Josh Zwelling, who recently took over Rosenblum’s, want to continue – and enhance – the personal service that distinguishes Rosenblum’s at its Skokie storefront. And while the colossus Amazon stamps out jobs and chunks of retail industries, the owners plan to promote literacy and Jewish identity with children’s readings and even scavenger hunts impossible for an on-line giant.
So Aaron acted when the opportunity arose to purchase Rosenblum’s from owner Avi Fox, who had moved the store from its longtime home on Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park. She followed in a more than 60-year family tradition dating back to Sidney Schwartz, Aaron’s grandfather.
A teacher at a couple of Chicago synagogues, Schwartz bought Goodman Brothers bookstore on the 2600 block of West Devon in 1956. Goodman Brothers, which had begun on Roosevelt Road in the 1920s, became Schwartz’s Goodman Brothers.
Rabbi Burton Wax, Ora’s father, purchased Schwartz Goodman’s in 1969 when Schwartz made aliyah to Israel. Wax ran the store for almost a decade when he bought Rosenblum’s three blocks further west on Devon in 1978. Rosenblum’s also had its roots in the West Side, then moved to Albany Park before finally settling on Devon.
Wax merged the two stores together, renamed it Schwartz’s Rosenblum’s and moved into the bigger Rosenblum’s location. The name reverted back to Rosenblum’s a few years later, eventually changed to Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, and Wax would work there until his retirement in 2001.
“We thought, it’s not such a bad idea,” Aaron said of the return to the old family business. “The main reason we did it was not for sentimental reasons. We had the perfect person to run it in Josh. But I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be involved in a Judaica bookstore at this level. My first job was in 1970 as a little kid polishing silver for my dad. I thought this was pretty amazing, and I called my dad. He was like, it’s very hard, it’s very competitive now.”
Wax said he was “shocked” when his daughter told him she was following in her grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. He knew all too well the challenges of operating a Jewish bookstore, especially in the giant shadow of Amazon.
Zwelling will try to leverage his experience in Jewish communal work and education to steer Rosenblum’s into a new era. Zwelling ran a Jewish day school before moving to Chicago in 2010. He already had a taste of the city having attended the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie.
A relationship with Aaron and her family led to his new role in the three-generation story.
“We’re very close friends, and I was presented the opportunity of being the operating partner of the store,” said Zwelling, who had been director of Camp Moshava. “I think this is a continuation of Jewish communal work. I think it’s extremely important that Chicago has a one-stop shop for Judaica. We also service a lot of the Midwest.
“Anything in life is a learning curve. But if you’re passionate and believe in the cause and you want to learn, that curve doesn’t become so winding. We have a continuity (in staff).”
Maintaining a robust internet presence is not exactly fighting Amazon’s fire with fire. But Rosenblum’s on-line effort is a necessary supplement to its brick-and-mortar base. “We have connections with institutions and shuls outside the Chicago area,” Zwelling said. “Now (with an improved on-line site), we can show the product a little bit better. Now, it gives them a little more information.”
The worldwide reach of a site does result in in-store dollars. Zwelling said four families from the Dallas area, in Chicago for an event, came in to Rosenblum’s because they do not have access to a Jewish book store where they live. “We sold them some CDs, some Jewish cookbooks and other Judaic giftware,” he said.
Under the new owners, Rosenblum’s is improving its Facebook page and has begun an Instagram account. Zwelling said he intends to keep the mix of books and giftware at about 50-50. “That’s a great place to be,” he said. “I think we want to increase our giftware for sure. There are a lot of new artists out there that we want to meet and show. But we will continue to offer a large selection of Jewish books. We want to continue to grow that as well.”
The store also plans to offer live events. “My daughter Ilana is a preschool teacher,” Aaron said. “I thought how nice it would be if teachers come in once a month, once every two months, and read a book to kids sitting around in a circle. We want kids to come in to really get into books. Books are wonderful for your imagination. They’re wonderful for education. We have to re-configure the store – it’s not going to happen tomorrow. We could also have authors come in and talk about their books. We want to be involved in the community and want the community to be involved with us.
“Online is wonderful. Everybody wants everything done quickly. But there’s something about going someplace, to look at something, to touch something, to really think about what you want. If you have something tangible, it makes shopping more fun. We would like to be a place where kids can come to, rotate teachers and schools who would come in to read to the kids.”
As a youth, Aaron said she spent many hours at the Nortown Library near California and Devon. Those experiences stick out. “I used to go there for readings of stories, and I loved it,” she said. “That’s a great part of childhood – just using your imagination. Kids these days don’t get to do so much due to all the technology. It’s a good thing to start.”
The events can be just plain fun, too. “Have you ever had a scavenger hunt in a Jewish bookstore?” asked Zwelling.
Both Schwartz and Wax got into the Jewish bookstore business because they saw it as an extension of their dedication to Jewish education.
“People come in with all kinds of questions, are looking for suggestions about which books to buy, want to know about Jewish ritual objects,” said Wax. He said that in his 45 years of working in Jewish bookstores in Chicago, the strangest question he ever got was someone who asked him if “it was permissible to use a yahrzeit candle inside a Halloween pumpkin.”
They were also both dedicated to having a store that was welcoming to all segments of the Jewish community.
“We always sold books from across the board,” Wax said. “We certainly got some criticism of that from some who said “how can you sell this book or that book?’ But we always stocked everything from seforim (Jewish holy books) to books on the liberal left. We wanted to appeal to the broadest possible clientele. I have always been centrist, believed it’s vital to understand other viewpoints.”
Wax said having a bookstore that offers works from all segments of Judaism and that gives all perspectives is very important because, he said, “a Jewish bookstore plays a very important role in the Jewish community.
“A bookstore is like a shul, it’s there to serve the community. Sometimes, people don’t know what they’re looking for exactly. It’s vital people have a place where they can go in and actually pick up a book, thumb through the pages, see if they are interested in it, compare it to other books. It’s very important people have a place where they have that opportunity. It’s different than looking at a paragraph or two online. To hold the book in your hand and look at the pages is very important. It’s part of what makes a Jewish community a community.
“And it’s about more than books; it’s about being there to help Jews with all their diverse needs, books, Jewish ritual articles, Judaica, things for the holidays, talking to people, answering their questions, giving them guidance.”
Indeed Wax said his fondest memories of his many years in the Jewish bookstore business are of the people he came to know. “I made a lot of friends, from all branches of Judaism, rabbis and educators and Jews in general, even some non-Jews. Non-Jews would come into the store asking about certain books, looking for information.” He remembers in particular “a nun, Sister Helen, from the Misercordia Home who would come in regularly because there were several Jewish residents living there and she would want Jewish ritual objects for them. She and I became good friends.”
Wax said he especially enjoyed talking to rabbis from all segments of Judaism and said he regrets that communicating with rabbis from all denominations of Judaism is something he sees less and less of in today’s Jewish world. “It’s causing us to lose our ability to solve problems, not talking to each other.” When he retired, several Conservative and Reform rabbis gave him an album of photos of him with them. Wax himself is Orthodox.
Aaron, Wax’s daughter, shares his commitment to inclusion. “Not just one sector of the Jewish community, but being able to help everybody with their needs,” she said. “It’s always been like that in our family, having the bookstores. Everybody needs or wants different types of Judaica and it’s important to help. It’s important to be able to help the entire community.
“It’s personal,” she said. “People like to come in. You want to be able to keep that going. If a place like this did not exist anymore, then all you have is the internet. You don’t have the relationships and you can’t touch something, look at something and ask questions about something.”
From retirement, Wax said he will do whatever he can to help his daughter succeed, but admits he may not be of much help because “the business has changed so much from when I began.” But, he said, what hasn’t changed is the importance of “having the broadest possible inventory, providing the best service possible and, most of all, doing all you can to fulfill the needs of your customers.”
Which, say the new owners who are carrying on a family tradition, is exactly what they intend to do. “We believe in a personal touch,” said Zwelling. “People want to come in and speak to someone and we want to speak to the customers.
“Bringing people back into this setting, through speakers, artists or teachers coming in with their students. It’s a very exciting time for me and Ora, and we hope for the community as well.”
Rosenblum’s World of Judaica is located at 9153 Gross Point Rd. in Skokie. Phone is (773) 262-1700 and website is www.alljudaica.com.