By Logan C. Ritchie | firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday morning at Judaica Corner is bustling. Although city traffic is nonexistent as Atlanta preps for Thanksgiving, the store is pregnant with new and old customers whom shop owner Janet Afrah considers friends.
The first customer of the day is an African-American gentleman dressed to the nines, wearing a Chai necklace and Star of David. An unusual sight, it seems, for the Orthodox neighborhood of Toco Hills.
Albert Henderson, 70, has shopped at Judaica Corner for 10 years.
“The children asked me, ‘Tell me about the Jubilee.’ What do we have that talks about the Jubilee? This is the year, 2016!” he tells Afrah.
As Afrah searches for a book to order for Henderson, he explains that Judaica Corner is his resource for books, shofars and the planning of trips to Israel.
Asked whether he is Jewish, Henderson says, “I am a Christian, but my father is Jewish.” And laughs, indicating his belief that Jesus was a Jew.
A recent bat mitzvah comes to collect items from her registry with her mother and friends from Charlotte, N.C., who are purchasing books and yarmulkes for Chabad friends back home. She’s scrolling through text messages with requests.
In the back room the bat mitzvah herself, 12-year-old Laelle Hertzberg, says: “What did I get?”
Her registry at Judaica Corner is partially fulfilled. She revels in her new gifts, including a gold, sparkly washing cup and megillah, while her mother looks on.
Customers trail in like this all morning. Afrah does her best to tend to them while answering the phone, which is no less busy. She’s alone on this Monday morning, though typically her mother, Rena Naghi, works with her.
Afrah, with her parents and sister, gained political asylum from Iran in 1979. Her father walked away from his hotel gift shop, home and life; he boarded a plane with his wife and never looked back.
“I spoke English because in Iran we had English as a second language. When I was at Yeshiva, there were 12 or 13 refugees from Iran. Back then we were getting political asylum. They were executing Jews in Iran,” she said. “I got a green card with help of lawyers, but it took a long time to get citizenship. In America there was no ISIS, no Taliban; there was a safe place.”
After her graduation from Georgia Tech, Afrah’s father was involved in a tragic accident at his factory workplace. He fell asleep at a machine, and it amputated four of his fingers.
“He was home for two years, so depressed. I was out driving one day and called my sister to say, ‘We need to open this store for Daddy.’ We started up the gift shop. Language was a barrier, but he could communicate without a word of English,” Afrah said. “Everyone still comes and talks about my father’s smile.”
Afrah’s children grew up in the store, sleeping and playing in the back room.
What started as a gift shop soon morphed into the place for all things Jewish. Sisterhood gift shops were open only a few hours on Sunday mornings. But the Jewish community in Toco Hills was growing, and the demand for Judaica increased.
“The Atlanta community as a whole is more supportive than what my friends and family have in other cities. We come together. We all support each other for almost every cause, every sect. When there is something for Israel, people come here to buy flags: They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. They are secular. I see this all the time in my business. We all have our differences, but we have love and friendship,” she said.
Perhaps this community spirit is what drew longtime employees and supporters Ruby Grossblatt and Esther Taratoot to Judaica Corner (and sister store Chosen Treasures).
Grossblatt, a local writer and contributor to the Atlanta Jewish Times, recalls sitting in Judaica Corner and writing copy for advertisements. “Our best ad was when the Braves were on strike in the ’90s (1994). It was right before Chanukah, and we carried a baseball menorah. A woman walked into the shop and gave me the idea. The ad read, ‘We’re Not on Strike’ with a picture of the baseball menorah.”
During the years at Judaica Corner, Grossblatt witnessed many kindnesses between strangers. One day she was working and a woman wanted to buy a mezuzah but couldn’t afford the scroll. A man who was looking in the case of jewelry pulled out two $20 bills to cover the cost.
Grossblatt didn’t know what to say. “The man cared that she had a kosher mezuzah,” she recalled. “I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ and he said, ‘I’m just a doctor from Savannah. Now can you show me something in this case?’ ”
“It’s the heart of Atlanta, Jewishly,” Grossblatt said.
She is collecting and writing stories in celebration of the 28th anniversary of Judaica Corner. She has posted two memories on the store’s Facebook page, with more to come.