Mel Wacks: A Jewish Hall of Fame — in his living room
To reach the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, exit the 101 Freeway in Woodland Hills and find the home of Mel and Esther Wacks on a sloping street where the only noise is the rumble of the nearby highway. Ring the buzzer and ask for Mel.
If Wacks is agreeable — and that’s a personality trait of his — he’ll conduct you through the living room, a cozy space with hardwood floors and a gabled ceiling. There, across the room from a portrait he drew of Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a trophy case of dark wood, housing a number of fine, striking medals. Each depicts a prominent event or person in the Jewish-American community. Those honored so far range from the likes of Elie Wiesel to Houdini to Barbra Streisand.
The medals in the case, along with a few others on a nearby bookshelf, are the closest to a physical location the Jewish-American Hall of Fame has. For the most part, it exists as a website, amuseum.org, where visitors can purchase copies of the medals Wacks keeps in his home, which is not generally open to the public.
In the 47 years he’s been operating the hall, Wacks has raised $250,000 by selling the medals, all of which he’s donated to a handful of Jewish and historical causes.
“It’s a very modest project,” he said in his living room. “It’s just been me.”
Wacks, 78, became a coin collector when he was 10 and his father handed him a leather pouch full of coins. (He still has the pouch. “Ask my wife — I never throw anything away,” he said.)
His passion hasn’t faded. During an interview, he handed this reporter a shriveled black object, vaguely round and barely discernible as a coin, which he identified as a 2,000-year-old Judean “prutah.”
“It’s like holding history in your hands. … What could be more exciting?” he said.
“You can get this for $25!” he said of the coin. “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t get this for a bar mitzvah present.”
Wacks left a long career in electrical engineering to be a professional numismatist, or coin collector. But he was still working as an electrical engineer near Sacramento when he had a chance encounter that would lead to the creation of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.
One day in the mid-1970s, he and Esther drove to the now-defunct Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Striking up a conversation with a museum employee, Mel mentioned that he was a coin collector. The man turned out to be Seymour Fromer, the museum director, and he brought on Wacks as the museum’s numismatic consultant.
As the 1976 bicentennial of the founding of the United States was approaching, commemorative medals were growing popular. The idea inspired Wacks to begin commissioning medals to commemorate milestones in Jewish-American history, and he’s done it every year since.
Over that span, he has given $171,000 to the Magnes Museum, which folded into UC Berkeley in 2010. In 2001, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame became a division of the American Jewish Historical Society, and much of the proceeds since have gone to that organization, along with the Virginia Holocaust Museum and the American Numismatic Society.
The medals have brought Wacks some acclaim. For instance, he’s met Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine and was honored by the hall in 1980. And when Wacks sent Ruth Bader Ginsburg a medal he had commissioned to celebrate her appointment to the Supreme Court, she wrote back to ask for extras: Her mother-in-law was in the hospital, and Ginsberg wanted one as a gift for her.
Occasionally, a group or an individual will get in touch hoping to see the museum, not knowing that it’s actually a small wooden case in the living room of the Wacks’ home. Of course, he’s generally happy to oblige.