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Junkyard Jews: Your trash is their treasure

by joe eskenazi, staff writer

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The ancient people of Rhodes were definitely good at building colossuses. But they weren't so prompt about picking them up after they fell down.

After the famed Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, toppled in an earthquake, the locals saw fit to let the huge pieces lie about like an ancient version of cars sitting on cinder blocks on a Mississippi lawn. For 900 years.

When Arabs overran the island in the year 653, they broke up the fallen statue and sold the estimated 30,000 pounds of bronze and 18,000 pounds of iron to a scrap metal dealer in Syria — a Jewish scrap metal dealer.

Thirteen centuries later and half a world away, Aaron Forkash of Oakland's Aaron Metals says he'd pay $27,285 for the remains of the colossus — cast bronze goes for 88 cents a pound, iron is valued at 100 bucks a ton, and, "at Aaron Metals, we round everything up."

And don't worry about the 90 camels the Syrian Jewish scrap merchant reportedly used to transport the remains. Aaron Metals has its own flatbed.

While through the years debates over transporting scrap have transformed from "one-humped camel or two?" to "pickup or trailer?" the disproportionately heavy Jewish involvement in the business has remained a constant — in the Bay Area and the rest of the world.

The scrap business' trade association is known as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, or ISRI. Not coincidentally, many scrappers refer to themselves as ISRI-aelites.

"It's a Jewish business," summed up Gayle Helwani of San Francisco's Bay Area Metals in the Bayview district. It's been a Jewish business since the days of "shmata sellers," she says.

Forkash runs his business by the book — if "by the book," you mean the ISRI directory.

"Pick a number between one and 100," he says with a grin, sitting in the break room of the family scrap yard, located in an industrial neighborhood not far from the Oakland Coliseum.

Given the number 72, Forkash turns to the page in the ISRI directory. Jewish names leap off the page in the management positions of nearly every company: Stein, Ross, Jacobs and a bevy of others Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi.

"And it's all over the world. There are Jews in France we've contracted with. We've gone to the [ISRI] conventions. There are religious Jews wearing kippot, and others who are very secular," continues Forkash, 30, a San Francisco State University graduate who majored in Jewish studies and sociology.

"It's really kind of amazing. Everywhere you go, Jewish people are in the industry."

The room is nearly overflowing with gaudy bronze and brass sculptures Aaron Metals workers have plucked from the scrap: dozens of cats and elephants; a race car; a strutting cowboy constructed entirely of spigots; bookends, which, when combined, form a bust of Abraham Lincoln; and, most visibly, a school of a dozen bronze striped bass mounted to the wall.

The din of non-ferrous metals in vast quantities being crushed, melted, dropped and stripped on the other side of the window wafts into the break room as a constant backdrop. Forkash's father, Paul, and grandfather, Jack, named the business after Paul's then-2-year-old son when they founded the company in 1976 (it also got them into the front of the phone book).

Forkash jokes that he "was born to do this, so to speak" and, naturally, tunes out all the smashing and crashing noises.

Across the country, there are many other families like his. In fact, in 1930 Fortune magazine estimated that 90 percent of the nation's scrap metal firms were owned by Jews.

This begs the question — how? And why?

Carl Zimring, a visiting professor of environmental history at Oberlin College in Ohio, penned his doctoral thesis on the history of the scrap metal industry. He sees the Jews' ascent to kings of the American scrap yard as a mix of timing and culture.

First of all, he explains, the market for scrap metal emerged in the 1870s, right at a time of Jewish (and non-Jewish) mass exodus from Europe. Since, at that time, recycling was considered to be, quite literally, dirty work, the job was relegated to recent immigrants — meaning that Jews and Italians faced no established competition. And it was cheap.

"There's a low investment cost. You could start up with a sack on your back as long as you were willing to meet people and make deals," says Zimring.

"And it was conducive for Jews. A lot of them didn't want to work in factories, especially Orthodox Jews who didn't want to work Friday night, or couldn't because of discrimination.

"One method of getting around this is to make your own business — and Jewish grocers and tailors and [others] started small enterprises." But, as the rise of department stores and supermarkets squeezed out many small businessmen, World War I made the much less financially taxing scrap business a lucrative one.

Corporate consolidation in the last 20 years has swallowed up many of the Jewish mom 'n' pop scrap yards. But, notes Zimring, "by 1920 it was a Jewish business, and pretty much has been since then." In fact, many of today's Jewish-owned scrap yards are now operated third-, fourth- or fifth-generation family members.

In the East Bay, the scrap business is not only largely Jewish but resembles the interconnected royal families of Europe.

The operators of two of the largest yards — Oakland's Lakeside and Alco, which has vast spreads in both Vallejo and San Leandro — are cousins.

"I just sort of got [junk] in my blood at an early age," says Kevin Kantor of Alco. "When I was 14, 15, I would go down and do work when I wasn't in school. Mainly, I sorted metals, and once I got my license, I started driving trucks for the company. I worked as a welder. I worked my way up."

He runs the company along with his brothers Keith and Kem and sister Kari. Their father, Elton — who evidently had an affinity for the letter "k" — founded Alco after his father, Morrie, founded Lakeside, which is currently operated by Lance Finkel, son of Les, who was Elton's brother-in-law. See? Just like the European royals but with more junk and less hemophilia.

"Junk in the blood" is a common condition among Bay Area Jewish scrap families.

San Francisco's Helwani gleefully recalls riding along with her father, Sam Golub, in what she calls his "Sanford & Son truck," which had "Sam the Junk Man" stenciled on the side.

Back in the early 1960s, father and daughter would head to McAllister Street, which was still San Francisco's Jewish enclave at the time, and pick up scrap and antiques from "the alter kacker shops."

"There was a Jewish butcher there and other shops, and they'd give scrap to him for free," recalls Helwani, 44, an Orthodox Jew dubbed "the princess of scrap" by friends and co-workers. "They thought it was junk, and he'd turn around and make money selling it." (Her brother, Doug Golub, who also runs the business, does not go by the "prince of scrap," incidentally.)

"We had beautiful things in our home," she continues. "My dad would bring home the things people threw away. I have planters and big, huge trays made of silver. People scrap a lot of interesting stuff."

Helwani also has a growing collection of Judaica. Whenever a menorah comes down the pike, she throws it into a barrel, cleans it off and totes it home.

The Forkash family also has amassed a formidable supply of Judaica, ranging from menorahs to a brass tzedakah box to the plaques reading "rabbi's study" and "cantor's office" from San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El following the temple's remodeling.

They also get old Jewish headstones. "We read the names on them to make sure they aren't ours," jokes Aaron Metals buyer Andy Smilovitz, a longtime family friend and employee for more than a decade.

Forkash cops to giving as gifts Kiddush cups that he originally found in the scrap yard. He also found an impressive seder plate right around Passover.

More practically, Forkash admits he's never had to buy filing cabinets or padlocks; there's always more than enough to choose from in the scrap heap.

Smilovitz, however, limits his scrap yard discoveries to adorning his work area. "My wife has strict orders, don't bring any chazerei home," he says with a laugh. The office, however, is a different story. "Garbage men will come by and bring stationery and paper products and pens that don't work. We've never had to buy anything. They say, 'Give me your order. I'll look for you.'"

Putting in 12-hour days at the scrap yard — as Paul and Aaron Forkash and many others in the business do — is not for everyone. But for Jews with junk in the blood, more prestigious "Jewish" careers in medicine, finance or the law are for someone else.

Michael Hollander graduated from San Diego State and became an accountant. In 1992, however, his office burned to the ground and he lost everything. With his career junked, he turned to junk, riding shotgun in his dad's pickup as Ernie Hollander made his scrap run.

"I enjoy getting out of doors and going different places every day. And the accounting business was very stressful," said the younger Hollander, who runs Berkeley Radiator Supply, located, counter-intuitively, in Oakland.

"The last 11 years I worked with Dad, that was very special."

Ernie Hollander, Les Finkel and Elton Kantor all died in the last couple of years, and the three were regarded locally as the Bay Area's patriarchs of scrap. Their sons and daughters are carrying on the family businesses.

Aaron Forkash is one of the younger men in the field. And, while most of society doesn't give a second thought to the appliance or computer left on the curb, that's where Forkash's interest starts.

Within the four, razor wire-mounted walls of Aaron Metals, everyday contexts are turned upside-down. It's the height of ubiquity to see an escalator leading down into the subway; it boggles the mind to eye discarded escalator steps resting atop hundreds of beer kegs and old radiators. Boxes of elevator panels sit nearby, their buttons and wires exposed. The one on the top, evidently, used to guide an elevator up and down a 14-story building.

A junked MRI machine, at one point valued at more than $1 million, sits between SBC telecommunications cables and compacted cubes of bumpers. Its value is now considerably less.

A big rig dumps 20,000 pounds of aluminum shavings in the middle of the yard, creating a scouring pad the size of an RV. Several dozen employees race about the lot, shearing plates of metal in half with cutting torches, tearing the copper wiring out of rubber tubes or speeding by on forklifts laden with huge aluminum bars resembling the Monolith from the film "2001." Men and women selling their metalware line up, even at the crack of dawn, where they engage in an easy, back-and-forth banter with Smilovitz.

The yard's two "balers" run constantly, each an electric blue, three-story-high conveyor belt and crusher capable of converting 10,000 pounds of copper into a cube the size of a desk. A similar device runs a never-ending supply of soda and beer cans up a conveyer belt from which they tumble two stories into a cauldron with a pitter-patter reminiscent of a winning slot machine.

The cubes of flattened cans are stacked 27 feet high in an adjacent warehouse. Aaron estimates 25 to 30 cans weigh a pound, and each 6-by-3-foot cube of cans weighs about a ton. Doing the math, that's 60,000 cans per cube.

Similarly dizzying numbers of pewter mugs (which Aaron mines for Kiddush cups) and brass belt buckles and machine parts fill huge vats. Many of the buckles are Texas-sized and bear legends such as "Century Award: National Barrel Horse Association."

Forkash stirs his hand through a vat of bronze drill bits and gears. A funny smile comes to his face.

"Maybe at one time," he says slowly, hoisting a machine bit imprinted 'Hecho en Mexico,' "This was part of the Colossus of Rhodes."


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