The Kiddush Cup

A kitchen mishap does not keep ARTIE DEAN from preserving a cherished family heirloom

by Artie Dean

Dean Wine Cup

On one of my last visits to his house, my father asked to speak to me in private. We sat on his couch and a melancholy smile crossed his lips. He looked all of his 81 years, tired of doctor’s visits and blood tests, arthritic knees, and pills. Only the sparkle in his eyes gave any hint of the young soldier he once had been.

He placed a simple silver cup engraved with the letters JD in my hand. I recognized it immediately.

“This was your grandfather’s kiddush cup,” my father said with uncharacteristic gravity.

“Don’t you still want to use it?” I asked, feigning ignorance of the latest report from his oncologist.

“Did I tell you how I had this made for Papa?” he said. I nodded slowly. “You did, a long time ago, but tell me again.”

He leaned back in his chair. His eyes became unfocused as he told the tale I had last heard when I was a boy.

A Jew born in Vienna in the 1920s had limited possibilities. My father was one of the lucky ones. At the start of the Second World War he escaped to England on the Kindertransport. He spent his teen years in London and enlisted in the English army in 1943, at 21. After the war he was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, as part of the occupying forces, Because he was an English soldier who spoke perfect German, he became an interpreter.

Paper money in postwar Germany was nearly worthless. So when he wanted a special gift for his own father, my father traded English coffee and cigarettes for silver German coins.

“Make me a cup from these,” he told the German silversmith, placing a fistful of coins on the counter. “And engrave JD for my father’s name.” How uplifting it was to know that the cup my grandfather, Joseph Diener, used to make kiddush was formed from melted-down German coins. As a boy I liked to imagine that the transformation of those coins into my grandfather’s cup in some small way would strike a blow to the Nazis who had exterminated my relatives.

My father brought the cup back to London, where his parents had lived through the horrible years of the Blitz. In 1951 the cup made it to America, when Dad and his parents immigrated here. Among my earliest memories of that cup is seeing it as Elijah’s on Passover. In our house the seder was a serious affair, which my grandfather led in Hebrew. The only time I was supposed to utter a sound was to recite the Four Questions. By the time we reached Elijah’s cup I could hardly keep my eyes open. Grandpa would tell me to open the door. When I returned he’d point to the cup and ask if the level of wine was lower. It always was. That Elijah was a tricky prophet.

One Passover night when my grandfather was 70, everything changed. We went to his home, as was our custom. All was prepared – the horseradish, the matzah, the wine. But although he filled the cup for the blessing, my grandfather was unable to chant a word. That night my father took over the leadership of our Passover seder. My grandfather listened but said nothing, his only response a shrug when we asked if he was okay. He had suffered a stroke and never spoke again. When he died the cup reverted to my father, who used it every chance he could to honor his own father – until he passed it on to me.

I treasured that cup as a priceless heirloom. I made sure to use it every Friday night for kiddush. On Passover it never left my side. And after my father finally succumbed to his illness it felt especially important to honor his memory.

This summer we hosted my wife’s parents for Shabbat. All went well. We made kiddush and motzi and had a fine Shabbat feast. After the meal I heard a high-pitched metallic shriek from the kitchen. I approached, calmly, while my wife and mother-in-law struggled over a jammed garbage disposal. We’d had many such incidents – trapped spoons, knives and forks swallowed whole by a mechanism that knows no restraint. But this time, the look on my wife’s face alarmed me.

“We can’t find your father’s cup.”

“What do you mean? I left it on the table after kiddush. How could it have disappeared?”

The two women shrugged. Then my mother-in-law’s gaze wandered ever so slowly toward the clogged sink. There, lodged in the drain, was my father’s cup.

I reached in. Tenderly I grasped the edge and rotated. Nothing, nada, zip. No movement. The beautiful soft silver that had served my family so well was no match for the disposal’s jaws. My treasured cup was skewered from all sides.

It took a vice grip and a pair of pliers to finally free my heirloom. This cup will never hold wine again, I thought. I took a deep breath. How will I ever tell my sister and my mother?

“We’ll fix it,” my wife said, renewing my adoration for a woman who thinks nothing is impossible. I pictured an alchemist melting down the remains and casting it anew. Instead we took the ill-treated cup to a jewelry store known for doing repairs. “Can’t do anything with this,” the saleswoman said. “This is your only hope.” She handed me the card of a local silversmith whose name suggested his ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Would he do his best for a man whose ancestors came from Poland? My wife insisted we find his shop immediately.

The Leonardo da Vinci of silver repair turned my treasure over in his hands.

“It’s a kiddush cup,” I said.

“I know. I’ve seen something like this before.”

I wanted to tell him the story of the cup’s birth, but the words dried up in my throat.

“I’ll need time to get in the mood for this one,” he said. “Could cost three or four hundred. We’ll see.” He put the cup in a desk drawer. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

For five months we heard nothing. In the meantime, my son, Jason, whose initials are also JD, asked if he could one day have the cup for his own Shabbat table. I loved his enthusiasm. His timing could have been better. “We’ll see. Maybe some day.”

I could wait no longer. Passover was near. My son and his wife were coming for seder. If the cup were missing, there would be questions. I called the silversmith.

“No, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Check again in two weeks.”

Two weeks came and went, still no word.

Everything happens for a reason, or at least that’s what my grandparents used to say. A week later my wife and I took a vacation in New York City and we explored neighborhoods we’d never seen – the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Brooklyn. When we got to Brooklyn, she wanted to visit Borough Park, a mostly chasidic neighborhood.

Strolling down the main shopping drag, we passed bakeries and Judaica stores galore. We stopped at one displaying candlesticks in the window. My wife was interested in a new pair.

“By any chance can you repair a kiddush cup?” she asked after looking at the candlesticks. They gave her a number. “Call Yisroel. If anyone can do it he can.”

She called. Yisroel listened to the history of my little cup with fascination, as if his own family heirloom had been so mutilated. “Melted German coins to make a kiddush cup? Of course, I understand,” he said, as if this were his specialty. “Send it to me by mail. I’ll fix it in two weeks.”

When we got home, my wife retrieved the cup from the indifferent local silversmith and sent it to Yisroel in Borough Park. How can I insure something that has no value but is priceless, I wondered.

Good to his word, Yisroel sent the cup back in record time. Between smelting and soldering and bending and polishing the repairs were nearly flawless.

My wife and I use our kiddush cup with renewed pleasure every Friday night now. I think my grandfather and father would be pleased to know that their memory was so important to us.

At the seder this year I plan to use our rehabilitated treasure for Elijah’s cup. I hope Jason doesn’t examine it too closely. If he notices the slight crease near my grandfather’s initials, I’ll have a long story to tell. When he has children of his own sitting around the seder table perhaps he’ll pass the story along. Perhaps he’ll use grandpa’s heirloom for Elijah’s cup. And if he does, I hope he washes it by hand.

Artie Dean is the American-born son of parents who escaped from Vienna on the Kindertransport. He lives in Waterford, Connecticut, and belongs to Congregation Beth El in New London.