Fri. May 24th, 2024

Barbara Shaw: Jerusalem business owner selling quirky Zionist gifts

By marianna May 24, 2024

The daughter of a Hungarian-born, Ladino-speaking mother of Sephardi background, and a Polish-born Yiddish-speaking father of Ashkenazi background, Australian-born Barbara Shaw incorporates the cultures of both her parents in the whimsical gift items in her two stores.

The aphorisms that she heard so often when growing up in Sydney, plus a few that she invented on her own, often make people smile.

Shaw has a background in retail and a master’s degree in business from the University of New South Wales, but her true ambition was to be a social worker.

However, when she applied to the Hebrew University, she couldn’t get onto the social worker course, so she opted for the history of art course, which was all that was available at the time. With hindsight, she says it was the best decision she could have made because it was a great foundation for her business, which she created more out of desperation than desire.

How did she come to open the shop?

She had looked for a good job and tried various options, but nothing really appealed to her, so she started designing gift items and going to fairs to sell them, outsourcing the sewing and production. She opened her first store in 1991 on Emek Refaim. One of her early items, a schlep bag, is still a bestseller. “People carry so much emotional baggage,” she quips. “Half my friends are therapists and the other half are in therapy, so there must be a market for a schlep bag.” 

Barbara Shaw’s store of quirky Zionist gifts. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

One of her two sons is a career officer in the army, and the other, Boaz, after completing a law degree, decided to join her in the business. She also has a production plant in Givat Shaul. Boaz has been a reserve soldier since October but is now coming out of the army and getting back into his civilian routine.

She hadn’t planned to open a second shop in Jerusalem, but when talk about a light rail route on Emek Refaim intensified, she realized that this would be a blight on business during the construction process, so she decided to find an additional outlet before that happened.

More than just business

There’s more to Shaw’s enterprise than making a living.

It’s a form of Zionism. She has a website that features some of her merchandise, and Jewish museum shops abroad buy from her. She is somewhat surprised that with the exception of the ANU Museum shop, no other museum shops in Israel have approached her.

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Overseas clients buy because much of her stock is amusing and unusual. 

She gives work to other designers, but many items are the products of her fertile brain.

By giving work to Israeli designers and artists, she is helping to promote them while simultaneously promoting Made in Israel.

When she went to gift fairs in New York, some of the people who bought from her started coming to Israel.

“What I do for Zionism,” she says, “is to try to present Israel and Judaism in a fresh, modern, attractive way.”

Well-designed, practical products

When she started producing aprons with some of her humorous aphorisms, some of her friends said to her: “Aprons! Who wears aprons these days?” And her response was: “Well I do; and if I wear them, I suppose other people do, too.” Sales prove that she was right.

The emphasis on almost everything in the store is that it must be practical, well designed, useful, and attractively packaged and priced.

Yiddish resurgence

Judging by the popularity of the transliterated Yiddishisms on textile and pottery, Shaw has reached the conclusion that there is a real resurgence of Yiddish. Even if people don’t actually speak Yiddish, the aphorisms stir some kind of childhood memory.

Design-wise, Shaw also likes to play with the Hebrew alphabet to try to make it more familiar to non-Israels.

As the Yiddish alphabet is identical to the Hebrew alphabet, she is working toward her goal whichever language she uses.

The kvetchometer

One of her amusing items is what she calls a kvetchometer.

In Yiddish, kvetch means “to complain” or “to groan.” So in the morning, the kvetchometer may register Oy Vey. Then later it registers Oy Gevalt, and finally Oy! Oy! Oy! ■

  • Name: Barbara Shaw Gifts
  • Addresses: 26 Emek Refaim St., 1 Shlomzion Hamalka St.
  • Owner: Barbara Shaw
  • Website: www.barbarashawgifts.com



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