Living in the Past. Turning a Passion into a Livlihood. The Jerusalem Post.

Home > Press Releases > Living in the Past. Turning a Passion into a Livlihood. The Jerusalem Post.

By Gail Lichtman.

In his store on Derech Beit Lehem, Dr. Arieh Gilai is surrounded by collectables. These items were part and parcel of daily living but are now exotic relics of the past.
A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, Gilai is a retired neurophysiologist who founded departments in this field at both Sha'arei Zedek Medical Center and Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center. He is also an ex- paratrooper who fought in five of Israel's wars. His life - spanning the Mandatory period, the creation of the State, and the days of a divided as well as a united Jerusalem - like many of his treasured items, revolves around events that are now historic memories for many Jerusalemites.
Gilai was born in 1938 in Makor Baruch Hospital. His family originally lived in the Old City, but in 1898 it moved outside the walls to Mishkenot Sha'ananim.
"My great grandmother, 'Bubbe Shaina,' was one of those who welcomed Theodor Herzl when he came to Jerusalem in 1898," Gilai relates. "Herzl arrived by train from Jaffa on a Friday afternoon, close to 4 p.m. It was nearly Shabbat. He went from the train station, through Mishkenot Sha'ananim, to his lodgings. Bubbe Shaina welcomed him with the traditional salt and bread."
When Gilai's grandmother married, she moved with her husband to Ohel Shlomo, a neighborhood near Mahane Yehuda built by the grandfather of IDF general and politician Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Gilai's father was born there.

Ohel Shlomo had a special atmosphere," Gilai recalls. "Although there was no running water [water was drawn from wells] and no electricity, there was a family feeling."
Gilai also recalls his grandmother's annual pilgrimage to Rachel's Tomb.
"Every Elul, during Slihot [prayers], my grandmother would go to Rachel's Tomb to pour her heart. I think many women had no one to tell their troubles to in those days, so they would seek comfort from Mother Rachel."

In 1956, Gilai was drafted into an elite paratroopers unit.
"I took part in a couple of retaliatory raids and then, in November 1956, made my parachute jump into the Mitla Pass as part of the Sinai Campaign. It was the only battle jump ever carried out by IDF paratroopers. For that, I got wings with a special red background."

He also saw action in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War.
In 1962, he traveled to England to study for two years and received a general certificate of education.
"I thought about continuing to study veterinary medicine, but my future wife wanted me to return to Jerusalem."
Gilai returned and married Ruth in 1964. He then enrolled at the Hebrew University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physiology and a master's and a doctorate in neurophysiology.
In 1974, he went on to study clinical neurophysiology in Chicago at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke Medical Center and became an expert in the diagnosis of neuromuscular diseases.
He returned to Jerusalem in 1978 and founded the Institute of Neuro-Diagnostics at Sha'arei Zedek Medical Center, which he headed until 1990, then moved to Alyn Hospital. There he created the Department of Neurophysiology for the Diagnosis of Neuromuscular Diseases in Children, which became Israel's diagnostic referral center and which he headed until his retirement in 2003.

In the 40-year course of dedicating his life to treating patients, Gilai has also cultivated a passion for collecting. His specialty is canes and walking sticks, of which he has amassed more than 300.
He opened his shop, Gilai Collectables, in 2000, "after my wife told me to get the clutter out of the house." The store is a family effort, with daughter Merav Gilai Schejtman tending to customers and son Dan the creative talent behind the shop's Web site ( The Web site includes a full catalog of items, with e-sales constituting a good portion of the business.

"Collecting is a personality trait," Gilai explains. "You can say it all started when I was 11. I was in Ohel Shlomo and saw a house with boarded-up windows and doors. There was a small opening, so I peeked in. I saw canes, hundreds of them tied with string and piled high on shelves. My grandmother yelled at me. But I was curious. I asked about the canes and was told they belonged to Ahim Simha [the Simha Brothers]. Ahim Simha had a large store, a department store by Jerusalem standards in those days, in Mamilla."
In August 1947, the brothers moved the contents of their store to Ohel Shlomo. Shortly afterward, the Arabs burned the area. But Ahim Simha's wares remained unscathed. Ten years later, following Gilai's discharge from the IDF, he spotted a store that looked like a flea market on Jaffa Road.
"I went in," he relates. "The owner showed me an ornate Arab dagger but I told him I didn't have enough money. He then showed me a cane made of walnut wood from Constantinople. The sight of the cane jogged my memory. I asked,'Whose store is this?' And the answer was, 'Ahim Simha.' This was the cane I had seen 10 years earlier. The circle was closed. I bought the cane and it became my first collectible."
Gilai was hooked. He slowly expanded from canes to antique scientific equipment, medical instruments, and spectacles (of which he has one of the largest collections of 18th and 19th century pieces in Israel).
In addition, he has fascinating old photos of Jerusalem, including a number of originals taken by French photographer Felix Bonfils between 1870 and 1885, as well as stereoscopic photos of the city from 1895, antique Jerusalem maps, early JNF "pushkas," writing instruments, scales, balances and weights, dolls, and an assortment of miscellaneous items.
But canes remain his unrivaled love.

"Canes are of immense interest," he says, "especially for a young man like me. You can flip over stones to see what is underneath, point out things, measure the height of the ceiling, or even scratch your back. Or you can put the cane under your arm and parade around like a British Sergeant-Major. In the 19th century, when roads were not paved, you could check out the depth of puddles before crossing the street."
Most of his canes originate in the 19th century, a time when they were no less fashion statements than useful aids.

Gilai affectionately shows off an English cane (circa 1912) made from exotic wood and with a rare porcelain handle. He then brings out a German cane from the 1930s with a deer's-foot handle, followed by an English cane (circa 1890) made from 89 shark vertebrae and featuring a hand engraved silver handle.
"Here is an English marketing cane with a buffalo horn handle used to hang packages on," he enthuses. "Look at the twisted wood. It was especially grown this way, a process that took five years."
He then grabs a special 19th century telescopic reflector-type horn hearing aid designed by Queen Victoria's physician, Dr. Huxley, and used by the queen herself.
And what about the Darnley English pencil case (circa 1921) that rotates to show the multiplication tables?
"It was called the Rotatable Lightening Calculator Pencil Case Ruler and Measure and it is one of the oddities seen in a famous photograph of George Bernard Shaw's desk," he informs.

Gilai Collectables is more than just a retail operation. It has been included on the itinerary of Yad Ben-Zvi's tours of small museums.
"We want to show people these items. Each one has its history. There is nothing quite like this place in Israel. Heirlooms are hard to find in this country because most people came here quite recently as immigrants, leaving their possessions behind. People do not have attics filled with collectables. We fill this gap."

Credit: Sarah Levin; Courtesy of Arieh Gilai.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner-  The Jerusalem Post. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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