Judaica gift shop opens in Walnut Creek

John Hessler was so fed up with city living that he thought about picking up, leaving everything and going to live on a farm. His wife and three children, however, wouldn’t have it. So he opened Meshek instead, a Judaica store in Walnut Creek. The term is an old Hebrew word for farm.

“It’s my farm,” said Hessler. “Instead of getting the land I got the store.”

The store opened on Sunday, Nov. 14, just in time to showcase gifts for the busy Chanukah season.

While the most popular dreidels may be the little plastic and wooden versions that sell by the thousands for pocket change — and Meshek has those, too — the store also features higher-end dreidels and menorahs by Israeli, American and European designers. Definitely not for young kids: a sterling silver dreidel from Israel ($280), one in Limoges china for $160, and a cloisonné version from the Jewish Museum in New York collection for about $45. “The great thing about sterling silver dreidels is you can get them for about $30 to $180,” Hessler said. And unlike the china spinners, they won’t break.

For those looking for a special menorah, Meshek has an art nouveau replica ($75) and a wrought iron version ($50), both from the Metropolitan Museum of New York collection, and the entire line of Israel artist Adi Sidler, which includes brushed aluminum menorahs and dreidels — “very modern and young-looking, but not for children; more for college age or for a special gift,” Hessler said. That collection ranges from $30 to $35 for dreidels to $80-$120 for menorahs.

And for those who already have lovely menorahs, Hessler suggests a striking gift to accompany them: a Chanukah matchbox by American artist Gary Rosenthal ($18).

A native of Antioch, Hessler left Berkeley and now lives in Lafayette with his wife, who works for a biotech company, and their three children, who attend Contra Costa Jewish Day School.

Hessler has spent his career in the Jewish community. For 10 years, he worked at Afikomen, the Judaica shop in Berkeley, though if you never saw him there, there’s a reason why.

“I like to stay in the back,” said Hessler, whose primary responsibility at Afikomen was to buy books.

He likes to stay in the background so much that he repeatedly emphasized during the interview to write about the store, not about him.

After leaving Afikomen, he was unemployed for a while. He thought about taking over the L’Chaim Judaica shop in Danville when it closed earlier this year.

“L’Chaim closed, and no one filled the void,” he said. “I was very reluctant to step in, even with all the support people were heaping my way.”

He thought he was burnt out on working in the Jewish community. But then, for unexplainable reasons even to him, he changed his mind.

“I felt like I’ll do it again, and I’ll see if it works,” he said. “I do love Judaica. It’s our material culture, and to be able to present the most beautiful or best you can find, that’s a nice thing. It’s good for the community to have it.”

Hessler says Meshek will be “not a traditional Judaica shop” that carries a little of everything. For example, he will not carry items like tefillin, for which there is little demand in the Bay Area. However, he will carry items that can be either “gifts for others or gifts for yourself.”

“It’s the place you want to come if you have a bris or bar mitzvah or wedding, and you want a buy a Jewish gift; that’s what I want it to be,” said Hessler. “I’m trying to keep out of religion and politics.”

He continued, “I’m trying a different notion. I’m carrying things that people actually want, that people will put in their homes and display.”

Speaking of the display, Hessler prides himself on how different the interior of Meshek is from other Judaica shops. It is meant to look like a home, not a store, with furniture, hardwood floors, and items displayed as if they are in someone’s living room.

“There’s a rule here, we don’t do kitsch,” said Hessler. “This will be a California Judaica store.”

What Hessler means is a store with a Californian sense of aesthetics.

“Everyone has their perception of how a Judaica store looks, I’m trying to blow that out of the water,” said Hessler, “without becoming a gallery, and being ‘I’m too expensive for anyone.’ I’m keeping the same basic mix of Judaica but staying within normal working people’s budgets.”

Eventually, Hessler hopes to turn the business into one that sells items by catalog.

Hessler is not handling invitations or ketubot, and will gladly send people to Afikomen for those things.

Other Bay Area Judaica stores include Alef Bet in Los Gatos, bob and bob in Palo Alto, and Dayenu at the JCCSF.

Hessler hopes that having a store in Walnut Creek will make it convenient for those living in Contra Costa County, which is home to a number of congregations.

“Everyone comes to Walnut Creek for some reason or another,” he said, “and it’s near the Contra Costa JCC, and not far from the 24/680 exchange. It’s centrally located for such a widely dispersed population.”

Meshek is at 1838 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Saturday and Monday. Information: (925) 938-1300.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."