Having a blast: S.F. man masters the art of making shofars

If you’re in San Francisco between now and Rosh Hashanah, don’t be surprised if you spot a 1975 Vespa scooter zipping along with a 3-foot-long shofar sticking out of the rear storage box.

The driver is Maurice Kamins, and he’ll probably be on his way to synagogue to practice blowing that shofar — which he made himself.

The San Francisco resident estimates that he has crafted between 150 and 200 shofars since he began making them in the late 1980s. Right now, with Rosh Hashanah around the corner on Sept. 29, he has about 10 in various stages of production and another 10 or so finished ones strewn throughout his modest Glen Park home.

Kamins, of course, needs one crucial item to make each of his shofars, so also scattered around his home — and practically lost in a junkshop-like hodgepodge of knickknacks and oddities in his cramped garage — are at least 25, maybe 30, perhaps even 40 raw animal horns. “Much to my wife’s chagrin,” he notes.

For a shofar-maker like Kamins, a licensed psychotherapist for the past 42 years, the weeks before the High Holy Days are always extremely busy. “I make a new one for Rosh Hashanah every year,” he says.

But the truth is, he spends much of his leisure time throughout the year (when he’s not riding his scooter or one of his three motorcycles, that is) making shofars.

“They are magical instruments,” he says. “They make a connection. Nobody ever walks out of a shofar service without being moved — or at least talking about the shofar and the sounds they just heard.”

Kamins, 65, has the look of a man one might find in a honky-tonk outside of Bakersfield, or swilling Wild Turkey in the parking lot before a Raiders game. He grew up “the product of West Coast atheist Jews” in Los Angeles, and admits he was “asked to leave more U.C. schools than most people apply to.”

Although he eventually graduated from what is now Cal State University Los Angeles and went on to get a master’s in social work at the University of Chicago, Kamins was more into riding motorcycles than doing schoolwork back in the ’60s, a passion that remains to this day. Not only does he commute five miles through the streets of San Francisco on a Vespa he bought for $500 at a garage sale, but he also owns three BMW motorcycles, including a vintage 1974 R90/6 that he modified into a café racer.

Just this week, before he and his wife celebrated their 30-year anniversary, Kamins and two of his friends returned from a five-day motorcycle ride around Northern California, an annual event he calls “The Geezer Tour.” And when the geezers happen to set off in the Hebrew month of Elul, as they did this year, Kamins brings along one of his shofars.

“They’ll be hearing it in Happy Camp along the Klamath River, and in Redding, too,” he says before leaving on the ride. “Any good canyon is fun to blow the shofar in, because it sounds truly inspiring. It’s no surprise that a piece of the service on such a holy day is dedicated to the sound of this horn.”

The idea of creating his own shofar came to Kamins in a blast in 1988, during a service at Congregation Sherith Israel shortly after his wife, Helaine, and three children joined the San Francisco synagogue.

“I’d be sitting there on the High Holy Days and listening to the person blowing the shofar,” says Kamins, who grew up near the heart of Jewish L.A. and went to Fairfax High School. “So I not only said to myself ‘I could do that,’ but also that I could make my own.

“Then the question was, ‘Maurie, can you make your own?”‘

Can he ever.

Kamins begins by scouring the Internet for animal horns. With eBay, the process is not as difficult as one might imagine, with horns of animals from the antelope family from Africa (such as kudus, gemsboks, elands and sable antelopes) not exactly plentiful, but generally available for between $50 to $90, with some as cheap as $12.

Though the animals are not killed for their horns — some are harvested from live animals such as male sheep and goats — most come from dead animals.

“What better purpose for that part of the animal to come back in a ceremonial way,” Kamins intones. “It’s better than being ground up into Jell-O. We’re talking about bringing back a piece of the soul and making it magical.”

Kamins also buys horns of the ibex, a wild mountain goat from Africa and parts of Europe that is commonly found in Israel, as well as an occasional standard ram’s horn. According to Jewish law, a shofar can come from the horn of any kosher animal (one that is hoofed and chews its cud), although cattle are prohibited (due to the golden calf connection).

But for most Jews anchored to an Ashkenazi tradition, “the ram’s horn, as far as they’re concerned, is the only legitimate horn,” Kamins says.

After seeing all the different kinds of horns around Kamins’ home, one gets the feeling he watches “National Geographic” like others watch the Home Shopping Network — looking for items to purchase.

“Actually, I do it the other way around,” he says. “If I happen to see a horn [for sale] online that is interesting, I’ll try it, and then find out about the animal, how the horn comes off the animal, how it makes the sound. It’s an exploration. It’s intellectual.

“I have a very different relationship to this instrument than most people.”

One of the most popular horns in Yemenite-style shofar-making comes from the kudu antelope, found in southern and eastern Africa. Its elegant spirals and length (up to 50 inches when measured along its curves) make for a stunning instrument, and its keratin composition makes it extremely tough and durable.

When Kamins began his craft in the pre-Internet age, finding horns was more difficult than it is today. However, he quickly discovered that kudu horns were popular with knife-makers, as a material for handles, and he began buying them from an outfit called Texas Knifemakers Supply.

He also unearthed that the Boy Scouts of America had some basic horn-making information (although Kamins mostly taught himself) and were a source for buying raw kudu horns. In their Wood Badge training program, scouts make a shofar-like instrument called a kudu horn, although the hole is on the side (a bit like a flute) rather than at the end.

“I’m willing to wager that that model is closer to what the first shofar-blowers were using back in biblical times,” Kamins says of the Boy Scouts’ version.

After choosing a raw horn to work on, Kamins hunkers down in his cramped garage, alongside various odds and ends such as a sack of turtle shells hanging from a crossbeam, animal pelts and antlers. The man is a natural-born collector.

He secures the garage door with a bungee cord so it won’t slam down in a big wind, and gets to work.

First, the tip of the horn has to be cut off, but where exactly to cut is the question. A horn has a clump of keratin inside its narrow end, kind of like the hard chocolate treat at the base of a Nutty Buddy or Drumstick ice cream cone. The aim is to cut through it, but also to cut high enough on the horn to leave a good-sized mouthpiece.

“The mouthpiece is the biggest problem,” Kamins says. “Although the horns are hollow, that ends at a certain point. With a new horn, I have to buy two or three just to make sure I don’t mess it up.”

If all goes right with the cut, the horn still cannot be blown into, as there is a solid white mass at the small end, kind of like hardened coconut. With the horn still in a vise grip, Kamins drills a small hole through the keratin, and then drills a countersink hole to make for better blowing. He tests it with a quick toot; no tekiah gedola just yet.

“To make a horn that creates a sound, I can do that in a minute and a half,” he says. “It takes another eight to 10 hours to get a finished product.”

During that time, which can often be spread out over weeks or even months depending upon how many shofars he is working on, Kamins uses a belt sander, then sands the shofar by hand. He’ll often stand at the belt sander for hours, a process that he calls “getting the yucky out,” but one moment makes it all worthwhile.

“As I’m sanding them, there’s a moment when the horn itself will start vibrating with the tone it will give once the horn is blown,” he says with reverence.

After the shofar is fully buffed out, Kamins applies a varnish finish.

In the sanding process, about 3⁄8 of an inch will come off the outer part of the horn, although at the base, Kamins takes off only 1⁄8 of an inch, which creates a raised mouthpiece on each of his shofars. “That’s kind of my signature,” he says.

His shofars are veritable works of art, brilliantly translucent in the light. In fact, several of his shofars can be found on the mantels and coffee tables of friends he has bestowed with one.

But using his shofars as showpieces really doesn’t do them justice. They are not meant to be lifeless; they are meant to instill life, to be blown. Majestically.

“The sound ultimately is determined by the length of the horn,” he explains. “The longer the horn, the deeper the sound.” Still, no two horns — even those from the same species that appear to be the same length and width — make the same sound. Kamins gleefully grabs one after another and blows.

“I’m simply fascinated by the different kinds of sounds,” he says.

Kamins’ shofars span the globe. Three are in synagogues in Israel, three are in the former Soviet Union and three are in South America. One rests in a library at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

How did they get there? Kamins simply gives them away, either to someone visiting from abroad or to someone who’s traveling to another part of the world on a Jewish humanitarian mission.

For example, when Anat Hoffman, a founding member of Women of the Wall, was in San Francisco recently, Kamins proudly presented her with a more suitably sized shofar than the small one she was seen toting in the documentary “Praying in Her Own Voice.”

Another one of Kamins’ shofars is in a congregation in Chile, taken there by Sherith Israel’s Steve Olson on a trip with the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Kamins also gave one to Sherith Israel Cantor Rita Glassman to take to a synagogue in Argentina.

Rabbi Judith Abrams, the founder of Maqom, an institute for adult Talmud study, once told Kamins “that making shofars was my Torah,” he says. “I still don’t know exactly what she means … [But] it speaks to the magic I feel in creating a shofar and then blowing it.”

Kamins passes on his “Torah” by teaching workshops and classes in shofar-making. Three days ago, he conducted his third annual class at Sherith Israel, and he has taught about 10 classes over the years, including at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and Camp Hess Kramer in Los Angeles.

One thing Kamins generally does not do, however, is sell his shofars.

“It’s not a money-making concern,” he says. “I’m not an artist, and even if I was, I’m not sure these shofars would be my art.”

He has no interest in taking orders and meeting deadlines.

“This person wants five by this particular date! This person wants to make another order!” he exclaims. “It ceases being a personal thing from the soul. Mine are different than what you can buy from a Judaica store or from a place on the Internet. So I just give ’em away.”

Well, not always.

“My daughter finally said ‘this is ridiculous,’ so now she’ll sell a few of them,” Kamins admits.

That daughter, 29-year-old Rochelle, is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and if she comes across someone seeking a shofar (usually a fellow student), she’ll offer up a deal, usually for between $250 and $400. “We call it the Rochelle Kamins Rabbinic Fund,” Kamins says.

Rochelle, by the way, is a chip off the old block: She, too, rides a motorcycle (a Honda), which likely will make her one of a rare breed of biker-rabbis when she is ordained next May.

Dad, meanwhile, gets quite a few stares when he rides his Vespa around town with a 36-inch kudu shofar prominently sticking out.

“I usually get positive responses,” he says. “Many times, people will ask questions and it becomes a wonderful teaching moment about Judaism and the importance of the shofar.”

During the High Holy Days for the past five years, Kamins has blown a variety of his shofars beneath Sherith Israel’s grand dome.

“Sherith Israel is made for the sound of the shofar. When it’s blown, it will reverberate in the building and echo back and forth for four or five seconds,” he says.

“I love the month of Elul. I can go into the synagogue pretty much any day [to practice]. I go into a huge room where you can really feel the five or six generations of lifecycle events that have gone on in there … In that moment, it’s just you and this amazing sound.”

Opportunities to make your own instrument not far away

If you attend To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival on Sunday, Sept. 21 in Palo Alto and see a huge crowd of people gathered around an activity booth, chances are good it’s the hands-on shofar-making workshop.

“Last year, we had about 200 people make shofars, but probably about eight or 10 is the most we can handle at any one time,” said Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale. “It’s amazing, because when we are standing there making them, people are gathered all around, standing 10 or 12 people deep, trying to watch.”

Hecht leads other shofar-making workshops around the Bay Area, but the one at To Life! is the only one open to the general public. “That’s the only time for adults to learn how to make a shofar, so the adults get into it even more than the kids do,” Hecht said. “It’s become one of the hallmark events within the festival.”

The workshop, which is designed for ages 7 and up, will be open throughout the festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on California Avenue between El Camino Real and Park Boulevard.

Participants will get a chance to saw, drill, sand, polish and shellac the Chabad-provided horns, which are actually goats’ horns rather than rams’ horns.

“In shofar-making, you’ll have different customs,” Hecht explained. “Some people today use a kudu horn, because it’s big and expansive, but many people try to specifically use the rams’ horn out of the memory of Isaac, in which he was replaced with a ram during his sacrifice.”

So why goat horns at the event in Palo Alto? “They’re easier to work with — and they are kosher for Rosh Hashanah,” Hecht said. Rams’ horns have cartilage inside and need to be boiled for at least two hours (preferably in oil) before they can be hollowed out with a pick, which takes another 30 minutes or so.

In the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, several shofar-making workshops will take place.

Just about every Chabad in the Bay Area teaches kids to make shofars as part of Chabad’s Legacy Program, which began in 1999. The “Shofar Factory” is part of that series of workshops (others include the Matzah Factory and the Havdallah Factory). Both Chabad of Contra Costa in Walnut Creek and the Chabad Israeli Center in Palo Alto conducted Shofar Factory workshops Sept. 14.

And they’re not just for Orthodox kids. A Shofar Factory will be held Sept. 28 at Reform Congregation Beth Sholom in Napa, led by first-time shofar-maker Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum of Chabad of Napa Valley. He’s been studying a training manual and was set to do a test run late last week.

On Sept. 29, a Chabad rabbi will conduct an 11th-hour High Holy Day buzzer-beater workshop set for the daytime (Rosh Hashanah begins that evening) at San Jose State University, for Hillel of Silicon Valley.

Sometimes these workshops leave a legacy. For example, a few years ago at Conservative Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, a Shofar Factory led by Rabbi Hillel Scop from Chabad of Marin uncovered a gem.

“One of our best shofar-blowers is a teenager who still uses the shofar he made when Rabbi Scop was here,” said Beth Ami Rabbi George Schlesinger.

cover photo | jared gruenwald

cover design | cathleen maclearie

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.