Harvey MacKay once famously said, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” For Jonathan Greenstein, that message has never been clearer. He has focused his life on pursuing the hobbies he loves and has turned it into his everyday career. As a youngster, he was always interested in the eclectic, and sometimes even the eccentric, and today that’s just what pays the bills.
As a 14-year-old, Greenstein worked at an antique shop after school and became fascinated by the pursuit of older treasures. This early preoccupation compelled him. Rather than following sports or doing what most teenagers did in his Kings Highway neighborhood in Brooklyn, he spent his free time searching through local flea markets, learning everything he could about antiques, and understanding how to identify stylistic art forms from various parts of the world. These interests eventually grew into his needed skill of appraising. With the money he made from being a waiter at wedding and bar mitzvah parties, he began making small investments in antiques. Finding his love for traditional Judaism as he left his teens, that focus on antiquities centered on Jewish relics from Eastern Europe, Russia and Germany – the centers of Jewish life for centuries prior to his own birth.
When he founded J. Greenstein & Co – the only auction house in the world solely dedicated to the sale of Jewish Ritual objects – he brought his love, knowledge and his own collection to market and to public view. For the past 15 years, Greenstein has worked with many of the most prominent, wealthy businessmen, leaders and Jews of renown around the world helping them find rare, valuable, and significant treasures for their own personal collections and museum displays. He is so well regarded within this world, these collectors and many in the art world know Greenstein as a modern-day guardian of antique Judaica — scouring the globe, recovering as many artifacts as he possibly can find that were lost, stolen, or hidden away during the Holocaust.
To him, antique Judaica is not “just artwork,” but a “window into our people’s past,” he says. “Finding these objects, many which were used for ritualistic purposes, such as Kiddush cups, silver Torah Scroll crowns and breast plates, and menorahs, can teach us who our people were.”
Every piece tells a story, he says. “Jews were not predominantly wealthy, but these pieces were made with precious metals and were intricate and personal. It took a lot of effort, love and attention to pay for and create these; they tell us about the values and lives our ancestors held by and lived.”
Taking his love of Judaism further, Greenstein became a connoisseur of Jewish music, too. Before beginning his Judaica business, Greenstein founded a successful medical supplies company, Mercy Home Care and Medical Supplies, which he operates on McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn, only a few blocks from where he grew up. That business gave him a confidence in management that has lead to him taking on the management roles of a handful of Jewish musical acts and artists.
Through such acts as Pey Dalid, and because of his affinity for the music and teachings of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Greenstein began managing the preeminent Carelbach cover artist, Yehuda Green, a regular at the Carlebach Shul on New York’s Upper West Side and Greenstein’s shul in Woodmere, N.Y., as well as concert halls and downtown clubs, near where Carlebach used to play.
From that interest, he became friendly with Carlebach’s songstress daughter Neshama Carlebach. In addition to helping her voice find broader audiences, he brought his music interest together with his expertise in Jewish art and is co-designing the Shlomo Carlebach Kiddush cup to commemorate the 18th anniversary of Carlebach’s passing. The cup will be made in limited quantities and will be available for auction early next year.
Greenstein’s own collection now contains several dozen Chanukah menorahs, known as chanukiot, all created between 1730 through 1960. Each menorah has a unique history telling the stories of the Jewish people from all over the world celebrating the holiday. The chanukiot include one that was used in the IDF trenches made out of bullet castings, also an art deco chanukiah, and ones fashioned after the top art stylings of 19th and early 20th centuries Europe. Each item brought to Greenstein has an emotional connection to the history of the Jewish people and is a testament to their faith and heritage.
The challenge, however, does not only lie in locating these religious artifacts, but in verifying their authenticity, as well. “Of all reported artifacts available in the marketplace today, approximately 70 percent are fake,” notes Greenstein. “I work very closely not only with my own clients, but with countless dealers around the world and with such leading auction houses as Sotheby’s to authenticate a variety of items.” Unfortunately, an unsuspecting eye often cannot detect fake Judaica, and at a time when fake antiques are saturating the market, Greenstein’s skills are more critical than ever.
Living in the Five Towns with his wife, Sima, and their five children, Jonathan can be seen heading to and from work every day, not in the modern comforts of a new luxury car, but driving a 1967 Blue Plymouth Duster that he picked up for $400, or his newly acquired 1971 Ford LTD that resembles the first car he ever bought on his own. He cannot leave antiques alone no matter what he does. It makes him feel good as he reflects on where his life has taken him. Not so far, but miles away.