Lois and Arden Shenker of Portland, Oregon, know the value of creating traditions that last. The Shenkers met at a young age, when Arden transferred to Lois’s middle school. They began dating in high school and they’ve been together ever since.
In the summer of 1957, when Lois and Arden were in between their sophomore and junior years of college (Lois at UC Berkeley and Arden at Stanford), Arden spent four weeks attending the Brandeis Camp Institute (now Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University) in Simi Valley, California, where he first learned about the significance of spice boxes during a Havdalah service: Traditionally, the spice box is filled with cardamom and cloves, and is used to mark the transition from the rest and spirituality of Shabbat to the normality and mundanity of the rest of the week. The scents from the spice box are meant to be comforting, and to act as a reminder that the holy day will return soon.
When Arden returned from the camp in 1957, he was so inspired by the experience that he urged Lois to attend the following summer. And so she did. In the summer of 1958, Lois went to camp and Arden went to Israel. “It was an experience in living an omnipresent Jewish life. For both of us, the camp was life-changing,” Lois reflected. “Havdalah was earned, Shabbat was earned, and that was very important.” Lois learned about the Havdalah service that summer and Arden brought home an antique spice box from Eastern Europe—a thin gold spire with a waving flag on top of a twisted archway upon a curved gold base. This spice box was just the beginning.
Eleven years after Arden brought home the first spice box, the Shenkers, now married, traveled to Israel together, but forgot to bring home any spice boxes. The couple realized, in Lois’ words, that they had “missed a golden opportunity to begin a spice box collection.”
“Fortunately, it is never too late to create something of worth,” said Lois, explaining the history of their now numerous spice box collection. Throughout his career, Arden made frequent trips to Israel as part of his work for various Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, and he would bring home an antique spice box with each visit. Their children, grandchildren and siblings got involved too, and began adding to it with each subsequent visit either to Israel, or to antique shops around the world. After the Six Day War, Lois said, many of her friends made trips to Israel, and Lois would ask them to bring home a spice box, whatever the cost, and she would reimburse them.
Lois said that she wanted her friends “to pick something they liked, not something they thought she would like.” Lois received a rather “contemporary” spice box from a friend who has since passed away. Lois would likely not have bought for herself, but she now thinks of her friend every time she sees that spice box.
Over the years, they’ve collected a total of 45 spice boxes, many of which came from the Shenkers’ children.
The boxes range in size and shape, from tiny, simple boxes to intricately designed windmills, harps and towers. Over FaceTime, Lois showed me a beautiful gold and silver stringed instrument that could pass for either a guitar or a viola, a drum set spice box, a lighthouse spice box, and an abalone shell that was turned into the lid of a spice box. For Lois and Arden, the spice boxes are “a visible exhibit of their commitment to their Jewish experience.” Each spice box, whatever its design or style, has become imbued with meaning, making every week’s Havdalah even more special for the Shenkers.
Sixty-five years after the collection was established, it has begun to shrink—each of their three children chose a spice box for their home when they got married, and each of their nine grandchildren chose a spice box for their bar or bat mitzvah (save the eldest, who chose a kiddush cup), leaving a current total of 34. “I believe so strongly in giving things that you cherish,” Lois said while explaining her and Arden’s penchant for gifting the spice boxes. “Give while your hands are warm.”
With that many spice boxes to choose from, is it even possible for the Shenkers to pick a favorite? For Arden, the choice is easy: it’s the first spice box, purchased in 1958 on his very first trip to Israel. For Lois, it’s not so clear cut. The couple was given a windmill-shaped spice box from the Jewish Federation of Portland, which ranks pretty highly for Lois. There’s also a sterling silver Havdalah set created by Israeli artist Dan Givon that holds a special place on the shelf. And while most of the Shenkers’ spice boxes are silver, there are a few made of myrtlewood—a tree most commonly found in Oregon, California and Israel, three places with deep significance for the Shenkers.
Lois and Arden live in a retirement home where their spice boxes decorate a Judaica shelf that once held a teacup collection, and they are joined by a small collection of kiddush cups. The couple trades off choosing which spice box to use for Havdalah, with either Lois or Arden picking one for a specific reason, whether it’s to remember a deceased loved one or honor a particular child or grandchild. When their family visits them in Portland, however, the choice of spice box goes to the guests.
Lois and Arden have now been married for 63 years. Lois remarks, “We do Havdalah every week and it’s very important to us.” Their Havdalah tradition and their spice box collection are a key part of the family’s connection, “the glue that holds them together,” remarked Lois. For the Shenkers, the spice boxes have become much more than vessels to hold the cardamom and cloves for making Havdalah—they are reminders of their history, their relationship and their community.
Top Image: Photos taken by Ellin Loveless, courtesy of Lois and Arden Shenker