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Despite COVID-19, a historic Beersheba sewing machine shop stitched on

CM 13/05/2021

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 Along the cobbled streets of Beersheba’s Old City, there stands an unassuming sewing shop on Herzl Street. A quick glance at the old sewing machines on display in the glass window and a gold-plated historic sign outside is enough to tell you that this shop houses more than sewing machines and supplies. There’s a unique history to this store; a history that spans more than 60 years. 

Opened in 1960 by Vilna native Abraham Kamenman, the shop today is a leading national importer of sewing machines, selling and repairing sewing machines for clients across Israel. While Abraham passed away three years ago, his son Hanan and grandson Roy run the business with the same kind of warmth and customer care that Abraham himself was known for.
“My father treated everyone with kindness and warmth. He was well-loved here, a mensch,” recalled Hanan Kamenman during an interview with the Magazine during the third lockdown.
Born in 1932, Abraham’s knowledge of the sewing machine business began when he was only 16 years old, as a survivor of the Vilna ghetto. His father and oldest brother were killed early on by the Germans, according to son Hanan, named after his father’s slain brother.
“My father took the role of taking care of the surviving members of his family – his mother and younger brother from an early age,” said Hanan. Abraham was able to find work in a small sewing machine repair workshop in Vilna right after the war. He gave all the money he earned to his mother.
AT THE age of 26, Abraham made aliyah to Israel. With the technical knowledge and sewing machine experience he had gained back in Poland, the young man opened a small shop in Beersheba and called it Kamenman’s Sewing Machines, located in the exact same spot as today’s store. In the early years, Abraham sold and repaired sewing machines until the shop expanded and he started importing sewing machines as well. Today, the repair workshop and storage spaces are located right opposite the store.
Pointing to a black-and-white photo taken in Poland in 1948 of his father, Abraham, at work next to a sewing machine, Hanan said it was thanks to his father’s first job that he and his son are in the sewing machine business today. It is one of the only photos in the shop of Abraham standing alone – in almost all the other photos, he is working with his son and grandson, a testament to the strong family ties. 

“It was beautiful to see how well my father and his grandson worked together,” commented Hanan. “There’s a lot of pressure in this business and no one likes taking orders from anyone but somehow the three of us were able to make it work without getting too irritated with each other.”
“It was impossible not to get along with my grandfather,” added Roy with a smile. “I never thought I would join the business when I was young but once I finished army service at age 22, I found myself coming to the shop every day.”
Abraham Kamenman worked in the shop until his last day at age 85, when he suffered a heart attack. 
“It was a great honor for him to have spent the last five years of his life working with his grandson,” said Hanan. 
“Many sewing machine shops in Israel are family-owned,” added Hanan. “You’ll find quite a few two-generation family-run businesses, although three-generation businesses are quite rare.”
 It’s also a difficult business to get into, according to Hanan. 
“It’s a very unique niche. You have to really understand how a sewing machine works. It’s very technical and that’s the reason why electronic stores don’t deal with this branch. The sewing machine is delicate. You need the knowledge to know what to do and what to repair when something goes wrong with the machine.”
“The technical experience is critical in this business and the knowledge passed down in a family is a key way to learn how to work with a sewing machine,” pointed out Hanan.
In addition to learning on the job, the Kamenmans have also traveled to the US, Poland and Germany to attend training courses for particular sewing machine models. Roy recalls a visit to Warsaw, Poland in 2014 with his grandfather to learn the technical workings of a sewing machine that had just come out on the market.
 “It was a great experience. My grandfather was the oldest person in the profession at the training workshop– no one could believe that he had been working 65 years with sewing machines!” exclaimed Roy. “Also, people were amazed to see a grandfather and grandson working together in the business, while learning how to work on this new model,” he added.
TODAY, KAMENMAN’S Sewing Machines imports such name brands as Sovina and Juki sewing machines, both manufactured in Japan. Hanan’s knowledge of sewing machines extends to their history, too, and he enjoys relating surprising facts about the State of Israel’s place in sewing machine history. 
“Not many people know this, but the Sovina sewing machine was originally manufactured here in Israel,” he told the Magazine.
“The original Sovina sewing machines were made in Safed in a small factory established in 1948. Eventually, the factory closed down and the manufacturing of the Sovina sewing machines moved to Japan in the 1960s.”
“However, the company’s original Hebrew name – Sovina – remained. The sov in Sovina means to spin in Hebrew,” pointed out Hanan.
In his Beersheba shop, Hanan has a collection of old sewing machines in the display window, including Singers, Luczniks, and of course, Sovinas with the faded gold-lettered label in Hebrew: Product of Israel.
During the third corona lockdown, the Kamenmans reported that while business became quieter, as the shop was closed to walk-in customers, they were still able to take orders and make deliveries. In addition, with people spending so much time at home, the interest in sewing machines rose, according to Hanan. 
“People around the world were looking for things to do at home to pass the time, and so interest in sewing machines spiked. The same thing happened in Israel. So our family business hasn’t suffered,” explained Hanan.
While some might think that sewing machines belong to the generation of grandmothers, the Kamenmans say that their clients today are younger than have ever been before. 
“When I started to work with my father in 1988, most of the clients were grandmothers,” recalls Hanan. 
But his son, Roy, perceived a change in that trend when he started working in the shop more than eight years ago.
“Girls wanted sewing machines as bat-mitzvah gifts. And grandmothers were buying sewing machines not only for themselves, but also for their granddaughters,” said Roy.
“I think that this generation is more interested in handiwork like sewing and knitting than the previous one,” said Hanan. “There is a great interest among young girls in the sewing machine, much more than their mothers’ generation. You can find young women, for example, sewing and selling items like bathing suits.” 
The Kamenmans say that their customers come from all sectors of Israeli society including the ultra-Orthodox and the Bedouin community in the Negev, for whom the Kamenmans have helped open sewing schools and provide training instructions. 
“I’ve learned how to speak in Russian, Amharic and some Arabic, thanks to our clients,” says Hanan.
“Sewing is for everyone,” he concludes. “Every customer that comes through our shop becomes part of the wider Kamenman family. They receive the same quality service and care that my father showed. That’s how we operate.”  
The writer made aliyah from Maine in 2004. She lives with her family in Yeruham and works as an English-language teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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