Afikomen Judaica more than a bookstore, and last of its kind

“Before the internet, if anyone can think back that far,” says Rabbi Chaim Mahgel-Friedman, “the place that you went to get something was the store, and you’d meet that store owner and have a relationship.”

Against all odds, that’s still the way things are at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.

Owned by Mahgel-Friedman and his wife, Nell Mahgel-Friedman, Afikomen is a Judaica shop and Jewish bookstore tucked into a quaint, shaded commercial strip on busy Claremont Avenue.

Afikomen co-owners Rabbi Chaim and Nell Mahgel-Friedman in their store Photo/Cathleen Maclearie

Afikomen sells toys and jewelry and greeting cards and items for Jewish holidays, but to the owners and their many loyal customers, it’s much more than just a store.It’s a community hub. A social center. A place to run into friends stocking up on Hanukkah or Passover items.

And in addition to helping shoppers find items to buy, Chaim and Nell are happy to point people to the right synagogue, Jewish study option or Israel program. Shelves at the front of the long cash register counter display brochures from every corner of the Bay Area Jewish community.

“We’re constantly referring people to experiences and programming that’s available in the Bay Area,” Chaim says. “We call it an Afikomen moment,” Nell adds.

While some Jews, particularly the unaffiliated, might feel uneasy entering Jewish institutions like synagogues, Chaim and Nell say a Judaica store is another matter. For a number of local Jews, Afikomen is their first point of connection to the Jewish community.

In 25 years of business, that’s a lot of connections.

With the recent closing of Alef Bet Judaica in Los Gatos, Afikomen is the Bay Area’s last free-standing Judaica store. There’s Dayenu Judaica at the JCC of San Francisco, and the Judaica-laden museum store (with its own separate entrance) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum — as well as various synagogue and JCC gift shops — but Afikomen is really the last of its breed.

Far from the dank, dusty, overcrowded Jewish bookstores of yore, Afikomen is a brightly lit boutique that takes up two storefronts in a block of shops about a half-mile from the historic Claremont Hotel.

Afikomen Judaica’s expansive, bright store interior photos/david a.m.wilensky

The inviting atmosphere and the wide range of items in stock keep a slow but steady stream of longtime customers and newcomers rolling through the store. Some come to pick up a gift or a new book, look at tallits or wedding ketubahs, or find a game for an upcoming Jewish holiday. But many regular customers are more like old friends just dropping in to say hi.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Berkeley resident Wendy Kenin came in to pick up a gift for a newlywed couple — and to catch up with Chaim and Nell.

“You’re supposed to have a lot of honey your first year of marriage, so I thought I’d get them one of these honey dishes,” she says, examining a small ceramic bowl with a honey motif.

Kenin first visited Afikomen 18 years ago. She lived in Arizona, but whenever she passed through the Bay Area, she made a point to stop by. She wasn’t very “active in my Judaism at the time,” she says, but she found herself always needing Jewish gifts for people, plus she was drawn to the store’s large, eclectic selection of books, especially those dealing with mysticism.

“Jewish life is alive at Afikomen,” says Kenin, who now works as a concierge for Big Tent Judaism, helping single Jewish moms in the Bay Area navigate their way into the Jewish community. Afikomen Judaica is part of that community.

The newsstand outside Afikomen Judaica

“There have been times [at the store] when I run into someone I don’t see a lot, kind of like when you’re in Jerusalem and you just run into people you know. There’s a community feeling.”

It’s an educational destination, too. “You can come to Afikomen and learn,” Nell says.

“Just this morning,” Chaim adds, “I had people coming in to buy a mezuzah scroll, and they asked, ‘What does this shin mean on the mezuzah?’ They had questions.”

It happens quite often, he says. “A young woman will come in or a young family will come in with their child — and that’s why we have a playhouse in the store, to make a kid-friendly shopping environment.”

Other people, Chaim says, will come in and say, “We got our ketubah here, and now we have a 4-year-old. What do we do now? We want to have a Jewish home, a Jewish atmosphere. What do we do?”

It’s easy for them to ask and for him to answer, he says, because there’s no obligation or formality.

“It’s less threatening,” Nell explains. “It’s not like going to — well Chaim is a rabbi — but it’s not like going to the rabbi at the synagogue. It’s accessible, I think, in a way that somebody in a formal institution … might feel that their question is stupid. Which it’s not.”

In October 1991, shortly after the devastating Oakland Hills firestorm, Jerry Derblich and Rabbi David Cooper opened Afikomen in the two storefronts it still occupies. The fire, tragic though it was, may have been key to the early success of the store.

“One of the things I think really solidified their presence in the community was the many people in the hills, many Jewish homes lost a lot of their Judaic items in the fire,” Chaim says. “They came to Afikomen to replenish and to restock their losses, and the store extended to them a discount because of the tragedy, and I think that really cemented their presence in the Jewish community here.”

Rabbi Chaim and Nell Mahgel-Friedman in front of store’s tallit selection photo/cathleen maclearie

Cooper moved on to become the rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in 1999; six years later, Derblich and his wife, Alexis, hired Chaim to help out. After a while, Chaim began to wonder about the store’s future — a passionate fixation that continues to this day.

“After about two years, I approached the owners and said, ‘What are your longer-term plans?’” Chaim recalls. “I put it forward to them that I was interested in buying the business. I knew that they were thinking of retiring.”

Spring of 2008 was busy for Chaim and Nell. That May, their second child, Raizel, was born — and their purchase of the store was completed in July.

The store is a real family operation. The couple’s kids, Raizel, 8, and Bear, 10, are around a lot — especially during the summer. “They’re both proficient on the cash register,” Nell says. “And the vacuum cleaner,” Chaim adds.

An earlier generation is present, too, in spirit. A beautiful pink oven serves as a display table for seder plates. It belonged to Chaim’s grandmother. “It’s a 1958 Western Holly with rotisseries, broiler and griddle, all completely refurbished,” Chaim says. “Many an awesome brisket was made in that beauty.”

Chaim and Nell met 16 years ago at a Rainbow Gathering, an annual event at which people come together in remote forests or national parks to enact an ideology of peace, harmony, freedom and respect. At that time, Nell, a Bay Area native, was planning to go back to Israel to study.

“I had a lot of friends that had gone to Rainbow and had been telling me about it for years and saying I really needed to go,” she says. But she thought she should probably work and save money for Israel instead.

Most of her friends had already left for the gathering when, the night before it started, a friend called and talked her into going.

Seder plates decorate a 1958 Western Holly stove, a family heirloom where “many an awesome brisket was made” (left) photo/david a.m.wilensky

Meanwhile, Chaim, after 15 years in Australia, had just returned to the United States. “I thought, ‘Well, I need to go straight to the Rainbow Gathering,’” he says. “I spent Shabbat here in Berkeley, and Sunday morning my friend put me on a bus to Dillon, Montana.”

If Nell hadn’t made the last-minute decision to go, they might never have met. Back in the Bay Area, they fell into the same circles, began spending more and more time together — and that was that.

Today, they live a Modern Orthodox lifestyle, though Chaim says, “I do also affiliate broadly in the Jewish world, and appreciate my Reform roots, Chabad trunk and diverse spiritual branches.”

Outside the front door of Afikomen Judaica stands a rack of periodicals: Lilith, the Forward, Tablet — and, of course, the current issue of J.

Just inside, an array of jewelry is on display. In some cases, Chaim and Nell work directly with the artists, including many local artists. That too is part of their community mission. Some of the jewelry-makers have never sold to a retail store before, so Chaim and Nell mentor them on pricing and market appeal.

“We’re exposed to a lot of new items as they come out, fresh items, new artists and we pick things that, of course, we find attractive and that we think that our customers will like,” Chaim says. “We’re the only retail outlet for a lot of local artists. They might have some kind of Etsy page, but here they get exposure to a whole community.”

There is all the standard Judaica store fare: candles, seder plates, more candles, Shabbat table items and so forth. Of particular note is the huge selection of tallits, a colorful array taking up a whole wall.

Many couples come in to look at ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts that are often beautifully illustrated). “We sell quite a few,” Nell says, showing off some favorites. “People come in with their parents and friends. They look through and pick something out. It’s the experience of doing. For a ketubah, there’s nothing like seeing a real piece of art in front of you, [different] from a little picture online.”

shofars are sorted by size. photo/david a.m.wilensky

In the back there is an overstuffed book section boasting an eclectic selection of titles. There are the standards: how to learn Hebrew, prayerbooks, bibles, etc. But there are also robust sections on Jewish feminism, mysticism — and something titled “DMT and the Soul of Prophecy” (which examines the similarities between the prophecy-like states of consciousnesses produced by the psychedelic drug DMT and the visions of the Hebrew prophets).

“Here’s ‘Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs,’” Nell adds while looking at a computerized stock list. “Oh! Looks like we’re out of that one,” she quickly adds.

There are books by locals authors as well, including the monumental new Pritzker edition translation of the Zohar by Berkeley scholar Daniel Matt.

Books about how to live a Jewish life are among the most popular, Nell says. “People come in and they want something for their kid to do Shabbat, and we say, ‘What are you doing for Shabbat? If you’re doing it, that’s going to engage your kids.’”

Shana Pava, a student at U.C. Santa Cruz, came in recently to look for recordings of Sephardic music and books about Sephardic Jews.

“I have this one about the Inquisition,” Chaim says, pulling a book off the shelf and giving it to Pava. “I also have this book about Sephardic rituals, I just got this in.” After showing her a few more things, Chaim leaves her flipping through the extensive musical offerings.

“I’m not Sephardic. I’m just a Sephardic wannabe,” says Pava, who studies Ladino as part of her summer internship with a San Francisco rabbi. “I’m teaching the community about Sephardic culture. Tisha B’Av is coming up, and we’re going to incorporate some Ladino music.”

Afikomen is the logical place to turn; the store carries a small but carefully curated selection of Spanish-language books. “We have a lot of Spanish-speaking customers who come in, so we carry some Spanish items,” Nell says, pointing out editions of La Biblia and Salmos (Psalms).

The kids’ book section is one of the store’s best stocked, including a display of books on the civil rights movement. Some are by Jewish publishers, and one features Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 in Selma, Alabama.

“These are important to have in the store,” Chaim says. “We have a lot of customers that aren’t Jewish, and we have a lot of customers who are African American. We have a diverse client base, and these books are representative of Jewish culture and Jewish values.”

If Chaim and Nell have a grand plan for the future, it’s for more partnerships. They and their customers may know how important the store is to the local Jewish community, but they feel they don’t get the same recognition from the organized Jewish community.

The store does have a relationship with Lehrhaus Judaica, which refers its students to Afikomen for course books. Even so, that arrangement took some doing — eight years of effort, Chaim says. “When I started working here, that wasn’t happening. Even though they’re been around for decades and so has the store, that symbiotic relationship wasn’t in place.”

There are also a few partnerships with local congregations. Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, for example, provides a pack of comforting books and resources to a member when someone in their family dies, and the synagogue “gets those materials from us,” Chaim says.

Temple Sinai in Oakland has Afikomen put together new member packages. “We worked it out with them and they give all their new members a five-dollar gift certificate to Afikomen,” Nell says.

Still, the couple yearns for greater widespread community support.

“It would be great to be partnered with the Federation, to be seen as a necessary Jewish institution,” Chaim says with his  characteristic fiery passion, “so that the message coming from the top would be that in order to maintain the vibrancy of this Jewish community, we need to keep Jewish bookstores around.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.