FOR as long as he can remember, Judaica expert David Roytman knew he was a Jew. Born in 1979 in Soviet Odessa, his very name — the recognisably Jewish David — was a novelty in communist Ukraine.
His early childhood was tragic and lonely; his parents divorced when he was only several months old, and shortly after his mother abandoned him in the care of her parents, travelling 800 kilometres to Rostov to pursue her dream of studying medicine.
In Odessa, the height of Ukrainian culture, she contended that her distinctly Jewish name thwarted every significant opportunity in life.
Years later, she returned to her native city and child, yet with a new name and identity that would no longer mark her as a Jew.
At the age of nine, David had his first encounter with authentic Jewish life when he attended a Lag b’Omer celebration on a yacht at the seaport, which was the only legal means of celebrating a Jewish holiday.
The festivities drew several dozen Jewish men, “but this was the first time in my life that I saw men with kippot and tzitzit and heard Hebrew words rolling off people’s tongues,” Roytman reminisces.
“This experience forged my first interest in the Jewish community and synagogue, which I began frequenting every Sunday to learn about my heritage.”
As the youngster was increasingly exposed to an enthralling world of Judaism, he was invited to live in the home of the local spiritual leader, Rabbi Shia Geiser.
Some time later, Rabbi Geiser’s father-in-law approached David with an offer he couldn’t refuse. As an activist in the Chernobyl Children campaign — a rescue project aimed at removing Jewish children from the region after the 1986 disaster and bringing them to Israel for medical care and, indirectly, drawing their parents to follow — he challenged him: “What are you doing here in Odessa? Come with me to Israel, to yeshiva.”
Roytman was enchanted by the offer, and from there, events proceeded quickly. He eagerly got his picture taken in an outside mall, proudly sporting a yarmulke, much to his grandmother’s dismay and protests.
This same photo appeared in black-and-white on his first Soviet passport, and heralded his journey to Israel, along with the transport of refugee Chernobyl children.
Eleven-year-old David spent his first few months in Israel along with the other new immigrants in an orphanage while beginning yeshiva studies in Kfar Chabad.
He continued in a yeshiva in Kiryat Gat and then a higher yeshiva institute in Jerusalem, simultaneously completing his matriculation exams in a public high school, and receiving his coveted acceptance to an elite army unit as a lone soldier.
Following military service, David was relieved to rejoin civilian society and begin preparing for his entry into college. Yet his long-awaited freedom was short-lived, as only months after his discharge, he received a call up summoning him right back to service in the bloody 2002 Battle of Jenin.
With war behind him, Roytman accepted an intriguing offer to travel to America on behalf of Ezra and recruit students for Russian-speaking Taglit (Birthright) missions. His English was rudimentary at best, but he was undaunted.
“The Russian Jewish community in America in the early 2000s numbered some million-and-a-half Jews, a population larger than the parallel Israeli-Russian population,” said Roytman.
“During my very first week as an Ezra volunteer, I recruited 130 students, all of whom paid a deposit to register for our programme in Israel.
“Yet at the time, Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq and began firing Scud missiles at Israel, effectively shelving all of Taglit’s plans, and that summer it was only a disappointing two groups of 15 kids who visited to discover the Holy Land and their heritage.
“Unwilling to concede defeat... the following summer, I flew again to America, where I successfully recruited three full groups, or a total of 120 students.”
Over the next 15 years, Roytman flew back and forth from Israel to America, recruiting students for dozens of Taglit missions, and expanded the programme, bringing a total of some 30,000 students to Israel.
In a sweet twist of fate, it was through one of Taglit’s many missions Roytman met his wife — and they now have four children.
Throughout his frequent travels representing Ezra and personal meetings with Jewish VIPs and wealthy donors who worked in posh offices in Manhattan, Roytman was frequently “perplexed by the fact that people would spend so much money on designer clothes, spend $500 on a pair of socks, but not spend a dime on their kippa.
“They’d cover their heads with a cheap shmatta instead of a respectable item to represent this Jewish badge of pride.
“This is something that I wanted to change, although at the time, I didn’t know how or what.”
As the years marched on, and Roytman became a husband and father, he absorbed the reality that while recruiting for Ezra had its spiritual benefits, it wasn’t a practical or financially-viable career.
He returned to his childhood love of drawing, and began sketching original Judaica items and three-dimensional models of unusual kippot.
“I saw powerful businessmen walking the streets of downtown Manhattan and met with numerous wealthy Jewish donors, and it rubbed me all wrong to see them all dressed up in fancy suits and ties, driving luxury cars, and polishing off the effect with a crumpled rag slapped haphazardly on the head,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘A kippa is certainly more significant to a Jew than his socks,’ and this is what motivated me to invest my heart and soul to alter the status quo.”
Identifying this niche, Roytman opened a small business designing and selling kippot. One day, an affluent Jewish investor noticed his online posting and persuaded Roytman to design an exclusive line of fashion kippot, committing to put up the funding.
“My superior in the IDF once told me, ‘If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,’ and these were words that I chose to live by and carry with me into my company, David Roytman,” says the Odessan designer.
“Over the years, I had many thoughts of how to decorate and diversify the world of Judaica, and how to elevate Judaica into the realm of luxury fashion.
“Design and drawing have always been my passions, and in 2015, I put those skills to use by fashioning the first luxury kippa prototype.
“It took three full months before we created a kippa that matched our philosophy and standards.”
Many doubted his vision, he confesses, and sceptics dispensed dire warnings. “A kippa for $150? It will never sell!”
Yet Roytman prevailed, and handcrafted David Roytman items are in high demand.
The kippot are fashioned of exotic materials such as python, crocodile, ostrich or stingray, along with other classic materials, and company artists employ special laser engravings to apply the company’s unique design.
Five years after fashioning his first kippa prototype, he boasts chic galleries in the ritziest areas of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York City, Toronto, London, Moscow, St Petersburg, Odessa and Kiev.
He partners with Valentino, another Russian Jewish designer, and has been given the moniker the ‘Jewish Louis Vuitton’.
His standard kippot sell for an astronomical $5,000 (£3,900) a piece, and he’s constantly seeking new means of expressing his love of art and Judaism.
Though he divides his time between Israel and native Ukraine, he built his Judaica factory in the heart of Odessa, which features his company’s flagship showroom and boutique.
“Tragically, for many years, Soviet Jews were robbed of their freedom of religion, ashamed of their Jewish names and identities which they sought to hide at all costs,” he said.
“Today, when we are free to exhibit our religion and faith, I feel that there is no place like Odessa to display this symbol of our faith with glory and pride!”
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