By Sarah Kuper
A priest, a rabbi and a Syrian Aramaic Christian. It might sound like the beginning of a cliché joke, but for Bronx native Nathan Salant, these individuals are responsible for encouraging his passion for collecting pre-Biblical, Biblical and post-Biblical antiquities.
Salant has lived in the Over the Mountain area for more than 20 years, but it is his upbringing and ancestry that led him to collect and to show his collection June 12 at Chabad of Birmingham.
Salant is the great-great-great grandson of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem from 1840 to 1909.
Being a direct descendant of a man so important to the history of Jerusalem made Salant eager to learn as much about the ancient middle eastern world as possible.
In 2003, he began making trips to the Old City of Jerusalem, which is where he met the Irish Catholic priest who would lead Salant to a rich collection of ancient artifacts.
“I was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when I happened to see a man dressed like a Catholic priest. He looked so out of place and then he began speaking in an Irish accent,” Salant said.
Brother Michael, as Salant came to know him, told Salant that he was sitting outside of a store to protect it from vandals who may take issue with the religious nature of the stores’ wares.
Inside the shop was a man named Joseph, a Syrian Aramaic Christian who was licensed by the government of Israel to sell authentic artifacts from the days of Abraham through the time of Jesus and beyond.
Salant looked closely into Joseph’s collection and saw documents of authenticity. Feeling confident that he wasn’t being “had,” Salant began a years-long relationship with the antiquities dealer.
After at least 15 visits to Jerusalem, Salant now has a collection of 92 ceramics, four stone items from the Second Temple, a silver half-shekel from the Second Temple and the blade of a weapon with ancient Hebrew on it. He has collected many early Christian coins and Jewish coins from the era of the Maccabean and Herodian revolts against Rome.
“People wonder, how do you know how old something is? You look at what else it was found with, what coins, what sort of tools were used to make it, even the color of paint,” Salant said.
He describes the collection as a historic archeologic collection.
“The pieces are an example of what an average person would have used in those days, something Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could have eaten off of; they weren’t made of precious metals. These men were nomads and shepherds. We have these ideas that important men and kings had gold plates,” Salant said.
Salant jokes about the Indiana Jones plot line in which the protagonist comes to the realization that the Holy Grail was likely a simple wooden cup rather than a gold chalice.
He doesn’t claim to have any dinnerware from the Last Supper, but his collection includes items from that time period.
Out of the Safety Deposit Box
In recent years, Salant has turned from casual collector to aspiring curator.
“These things are in six safe deposit boxes. It is sad, they need to be on display in a museum but I figured it was a pipe dream,” he said.
Salant said the collection as a whole is not centered on one religion or another. The pieces represent a time period, not necessarily a value system. For that reason, he believes interest in the collection would be wide.
Salant has put some feelers out around the area to see if civic spaces or museums might be interested in an exhibit, but so far logistics and timing have gotten in the way.
By showing the collection at Chabad of Birmingham, he hoped to get a feel for what people may gain from seeing the pieces and how difficult it is to transport and display them.
In addition to being an avid antiquities collector, Salant was commissioner of the Middle Atlantic Conference and then commissioner of the Gulf South Conference for more than 20 years. He’s authored two books on baseball and continues to travel to Jerusalem.