April 29, 2009
Israeli Museum Doubles as Law Office
Attorney Boris Z. Gorbis celebrated Israel Independence Day by adding a few more items to his private collection of some 4,500 Israeli artifacts.
Gorbis, a 58-year-old Russian immigrant, calls his collection the AM-IS (American Israeli) Museum, but in truth the site is his four-room law office on the eighth floor of a Wilshire Boulevard office building.
Every inch of his lobby, walls, desk and shelf space is covered with Israel-made menorahs, Shabbat candlesticks, seder and other decorative plates, plaques, figurines, ashtrays, cigarette boxes, trivets, mosaics, photos, posters, bas-reliefs, lamps, mezuzot, etrog holders, bottle and letter openers, dreidels — and the list goes on and on.
All the items were made in Palestine/Israel from the 1930s to the 1970s, generally in one-man metal shops or in small kibbutz-based enterprises. The artifacts range from an artistic 3-by-4-inch mosaic of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and intricate hamsa amulets for warding off the evil eye to plain tourist kitsch.
To Gorbis, who functions as the museum’s sole buyer, curator, duster and tour guide, the collection represents a link, for himself and for Diaspora Jews, to a past era of Israeli history and craftsmanship.
He has visited Israel four times, but he would never consider buying his museum pieces from a commercial store or through a catalogue.
Instead, he haunts mainly thrift shops, flea markets and occasionally garbage cans, and will accept items from friends and strangers.
On a recent Sunday, when Gorbis welcomed a visitor to his lair, he announced that he had just returned from a successful foray into the Fairfax area.
When not engaged in his avocation, Gorbis practices litigation and consumer rights law, although there is no visible space in the office to seat a client or write a brief.
Round-faced, grey-haired and exuberant, Gorbis has an interesting back story. Born in Odessa, he studied and researched such disparate fields as nuclear physics and psycholinguistics, and still lectures occasionally on these topics.
He left his native country in 1975, fed up with its stifling environment and anti-Semitism, and came to San Francisco, where he taught a class on the psychology of speech at Stanford and earned a law degree at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.
He is also a prolific political polemicist, mainly scourging softheaded liberals who, in his view, endanger the security of Israel and the United States.
Gorbis professes that he has no idea how much his eclectic collection of “Israeliana” is worth, but he is now planning to transfer it to a more suitable and public place, with a real staff, interns and scholars in residence.
He is looking for the right site and has established a foundation to raise money for the cause. He hopes to be up and running in two years.
Gorbis will by happy to show the collection to any group of four persons or less, Mon. through Fri., between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Call (323) 651-1600 to let him know you are coming.