A box of grapes

There is one more category of things I want but won’t buy. That is stuff that needs more maintenance than I am willing or able to provide. And I mean maintenance not only in the obvious physical way, but also in the sense of whether I can own an object in a meaningful way that respects what it was meant to be.

I want a sterling etrog box, even though I’m not Jewish and not engaged to a Jewish man (etrog boxes are commonly given as a bride’s gift to a groom). I asked the people at Chabad whether it’s okay for a gentile to own an etrog box for its beauty, and they said yes, so long as it is in a nice, respectful place and not, say, in the bathroom (e.g. not as a cotton ball holder).

Etrog box 70106-0332Look at this finely sculpted silver object. In grade school, I spent many a daydreamy hour with purple and green felt tip pens drawing grapevines like this, over and over, along margins of papers and just to draw. This box brings back those peaceful memories. And it would feel so luxurious to have not only ten ounces of sterling but so much more pretty than even well designed bullion. I like to imagine myself gazing at it and admiring its workmanship.

But the problem with silver is that you either have to handle it all the time all over, like flatware used and washed every day, or you have to keep it away from air and, ideally, use 3M strips and silvercloth to attract tarnish before it attacks the object you are trying to protect.

In reality, I would never look at this glorious piece of workmanship after I bought it. It would stay wrapped up. Too much trouble to unwrap it and rewrap it. And although I would take care that it would be on a shelf and not in a box of chowder, it would just sit there and take up space and never fulfill its intended destiny of holding an etrog. I have no religious reason to take it out even a week a year.

And that brings up whether one can respectfully use something in a way that was not intended by its creator. I don’t mean something trivial, such as whether I can use a coffee mug as a pen holder; but I think there ought to be a great deal of care and hesitation and respect in repurposing objects that were created with the intent that they should bear a lot of meaning, such as, oh, using a new funeral urn as a vase for flowers. Sometimes, as I think this box was, objects are made with exceptional craftsmanship precisely because of the passion of meaningfulness.

The reason I contacted Chabad in the first place was because years before, I had been hugely offended by a photo spread in an interior decorating magazine that included a set of throw cushions all made from a brocade chasuble – the center cushion was made with the “IHS” christogram from the back center of the chasuble. I explained this story to the Chabad people to give them a context for my question about the etrog box, and they thanked me for that sensitivity. I made it clear that I admired the workmanship in etrog boxes and didn’t just think they were cute decorating pieces.

But after several years of hesitation on this, I have come to the conclusion an etrog box takes too much maintenance for me to provide, both physically and emotionally. I cannot do it proper justice either as a piece of artistry in silver or as the meaning-bearing object it was intended to be. I cannot just buy it and throw it to the acquisitive beast within me to gobble down as one more capture.


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