Visu­al Arts

Sara Berman’s Closet

Maira Kalman, Alex Kalman

By – November 26, 2018

Hand-let­tered and illus­trat­ed with vivid paint­ings and pho­tographs, Sara Berman’s Clos­et pro­vides the back­sto­ry of an immense­ly pop­u­lar 2017 exhib­it at New York City’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. Illus­trat­ed by Maira Kalman (Sara Berman’s daugh­ter) and co-writ­ten and pho­tographed by Maira and Alex Kalman (Sara’s grand­son), the book is a trib­ute to a woman’s jour­ney through life.

Sara’s mem­o­ries of her ear­ly years in Belarus are recount­ed in child­like, ellip­ti­cal rec­ol­lec­tions: Yes, there were pogroms. Yes, there was depri­va­tion. But Life was not all bad.… There were wild blue­ber­ry forests where the chil­dren ran wild.” She and her sis­ter were avid read­ers who, despite liv­ing sim­ply in a hut along the Riv­er Sluch, cher­ished works by Tol­stoy, Dos­to­evsky, and Chekhov.

When she was twelve years old, Sara’s fam­i­ly moved to Pales­tine. Life in this new coun­try was full of hard­ships, but Sara’s rich imag­i­na­tion peo­pled it with celebri­ties includ­ing Gand­hi, Arturo Toscani­ni, and Gertrude Stein. Lat­er in the book, vignettes of her mar­riage to Pesach, a charm­ing man-about-town, fore­shad­ow the core of dis­sat­is­fac­tion that would lead her to aban­don the mar­riage thir­ty-eight years later.

When she fig­u­ra­tive­ly cut” her hus­band out of her life — a spread shows halves of pho­tographs with only Sara vis­i­ble — the result is announced” on a blank page: It was a Lib­er­a­tion.” Sara goes on to gain a lev­el of self-real­iza­tion that few women of her time and back­ground achieved.

Echo­ing Vir­ginia Woolf’s famous 1929 fem­i­nist text, Sara acquired a room of her own” in New York City. She pared her belong­ings down to the essen­tials, orga­niz­ing them art­ful­ly. Her activ­i­ties were sim­ple but mean­ing­ful to her. She decid­ed to wear only white to express a Zen-like exis­tence. Her ear­ly habits from Belarus and Pales­tine resur­faced as she starched, ironed, fold­ed and stacked every­thing with lov­ing care and precision.”

How Sara’s clos­et became an art instal­la­tion some ten years after her death is not made entire­ly clear, but her clar­i­ty of vision and courage are well delin­eat­ed. The authors con­vey the mes­sage that an individual’s life, when lived mean­ing­ful­ly, can be seen as a work of art.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions

This mem­oir is a rev­er­en­tial inven­to­ry of Sara Berman’s life, times, and clos­et. It is enchant­i­ng­ly writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by her daugh­ter, the inim­itable Maira Kalman, and it is pho­tographed by Maira’s son Alex. The book, like the clos­et, is an ode to sim­plic­i­ty, to rein­ven­tion after mis­for­tune, to joy­ful­ness, opti­mism, and devo­tion. It is a small and mon­u­men­tal sto­ry” that illu­mi­nates how life goes on.”

In the Belaru­sian vil­lage where Sara Berman was born in 1920, the women cre­at­ed order out of chaos: they held every­thing and every­one togeth­er, prin­ci­pal­ly through the rit­u­als of Shab­bos. Sara learned to cher­ish small things and edit out dis­trac­tions — traits that served her well when she emi­grat­ed to Pales­tine as a child and then to New York at age six­ty with a sin­gle suit­case. In a metic­u­lous clos­et in a room of her own” in Green­wich Vil­lage, Sara curat­ed the mod­est belong­ings that lent order to her full life. Her fam­i­ly thought the clos­et was a work of art, and so did The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, which exhib­it­ed Sara Berman’s clos­et after her death. Sara’s clos­et and her soul are indeli­bly bound in these ten­der pages.