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'Sara Berman's Closet' Traces 1 Woman's Life, From Shtetl To Greenwich Village


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's a long way from a shtetl in Eastern Europe to an apartment in Greenwich Village in miles and in the shape of daily life. That's the story told in the new book "Sara Berman's Closet," a collaboration between children's book author and illustrator Maira Kalman and her son Alex Kalman, a designer and founder of the exhibition space called Mmuseumm.

Sara was Maira's mother and Alex's grandmother. The book is also about how, after 38 years of marriage, Sara left her husband - they were living in Tel Aviv at the time - and also left behind all her possessions, with the exception of what she could fit in one suitcase. After starting her new life in Manhattan, she decided to wear only white. Her immaculate, ordered, all-white closet is not only referred to in the title of the new book; it was turned into a museum show. "Sara Berman's Closet" was on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is now at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, along with an expanded version of the book with artwork, photos and objects from Sara's life.

Maira Kalman, Alex Kalman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So Maira, the way you've written the book, it's almost like you're telling your mother's story, from going to a village in Belarus to Palestine to Manhattan, as if it was a fairy tale. You write children's books, but this one, I have to say - it reads kind of like a fairy tale. Was that intentional?

MAIRA KALMAN: The nature of the family and the stories that came from Belarus and the stories that came from Palestine always felt like a fairy tale. They were absurd, and they were strange. And they were terse and irreverent. And I think that when we were writing the book - when Alex and I were writing the book - we knew that that was the tone 'cause it felt - that was the natural tone of how our family spoke.

GROSS: Did she ever explain to you why she started to wear only white?

M. KALMAN: No, and that was the beautiful part of our life. Nobody explained anything to anybody.

GROSS: (Laughter).

M. KALMAN: There was a tremendous amount...

ALEX KALMAN: And we knew not to ask why.

M. KALMAN: And we knew not to ask why, but not out of fear - just out of, it didn't matter. You know, we just all went along with things as they happened. And I guess that's part of the fairy tale aspect - that you don't really ask why.

GROSS: OK. So you have this, like, lovely spin on all of it - that it's like a fairy tale, and it's - everything is beautiful and ironed and starched. Even the socks and the underpants are ironed. And as an outsider, from afar, I could've put a really negative spin on all of this and said, oh, this is a sign of some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a sign of a kind of narrowing of her world - that she narrowed her world to only white, that everything had to be so carefully controlled because she was afraid of chaos, as opposed to that she loved order and precision. Did you ever think of, like, the flip side, a possible dark side to the beauty that you found in her closet?

M. KALMAN: Never. I mean, she had enough darkness in her marriage. It wasn't as if her life was this beautiful fairy tale. She really had a tremendous amount of sorrow and conflict. But when she started her own life again in New York, it was all about the nature of the love of your life and the love of what you can do in your life and how you make your own decisions and beauty and the aesthetic of all of it. That was really an important part of it. So it wasn't about control so much as it - as about an expression of joy.

GROSS: And what made you think, after your mother died - and, Alex, after your grandmother died - that her closet should be preserved in some way as a work of art?

A. KALMAN: It actually began before she died. When I was a child, we would go over to her house for dinner on Friday nights and other times, as well, whenever we were invited. And we would appreciate her closet like a masterpiece of art while she was still alive. It was already something that was so powerful and communicative and beautiful to us. So it started then, this appreciation. After she died, Maira said, let's preserve this space. We can invite - we can open it up to the public. People can pay - what?

M. KALMAN: Fifty cents or a dollar. I wasn't sure.

A. KALMAN: To come and visit.

M. KALMAN: And I assigned my sister as the docent.

GROSS: So what were you going to use as the exhibition space?

M. KALMAN: Her apartment.

A. KALMAN: The apartment.

M. KALMAN: We were just going to keep it. And my sister - well, you know, I - in my mind, my sister would be sitting there, waiting for people from all over the world to appear.

A. KALMAN: So you'd come to...

GROSS: I bet your sister just loved that idea (laughter).

M. KALMAN: She was the (laughter) - yeah, she had some thoughts about that.

GROSS: So...

M. KALMAN: So it was plan B, which is keep everything, and wait and see what happens because one day, this will be. There was no question about it. We just didn't know how it would reveal itself until Alex's Mmuseumm. And that was the brilliant moment of life.

GROSS: So Alex, describe your Mmuseumm, which is pretty unique.

A. KALMAN: There's a small alley called Cortlandt Alley just below Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, and it's a kind of a gritty, graffiti-covered alley. And in the alley, there are two small spaces, one a former freight elevator shaft, and the other the back of a store. And both of those have been converted into exhibition spaces that make up the two wings of Mmuseumm, which is the museum that I opened with a couple of friends in 2012. Mmuseumm is spelt normally, except that it has an extra M on either end. So it's M-M-U-S-E-U-M-M.

And it's really a style of storytelling - a look at the human condition, a look at who we are and how we feel, and what we're dealing with and what we want, and what we hope for and what we're afraid of - through vernacular objects, through objects from around the world that reveal these kind of elemental truths about, what does it mean to be alive in this day and age? So I think about it almost as a form of journalism through objects.

GROSS: So the book and the larger exhibition, which is now at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, also tells the story of Sara Berman's life. And I think you both went back to the village where she was born in Belarus, a village called Lenin.

A. KALMAN: I wasn't invited on that trip.

GROSS: Oh, you weren't invited. Why not?

M. KALMAN: I don't think you were. Yeah, I don't think you were. I don't know why. We forgot about...

A. KALMAN: (Laughter).

M. KALMAN: So there were some people we forgot about. It was more of a cousins - like, the elders - the elders of the family went.

GROSS: So describe what you know about the village when your mother lived there 'cause I think her story is probably very similar to the stories of many Jewish people who grew up in that region and then fled the pogroms.

M. KALMAN: You know, one of the things that we talk about from the - at the museum - the National Museum of American Jewish History - is the swath of history that her life mirrors and - or parallels. And so the shtetls of Eastern Europe where everybody is in - all the Jews are in a little village - there's a curfew. They have very limited life, and it's very constrained. The pogroms go on. Of course, the - you know, the wars go on. The borders change from Russia to Poland, and they're controlled by different people. But always, there are the Jews in the shtetl.

So of course, Zionism appears and becomes a - you know, and Palestine becomes a magnet for the Jews to survive. So they left in 1932, and they left a village that was, you know, shacks, really. And when we went back to visit, a lot of the shacks are still there, except now, people live in them who have computers. And you look at it, and you say, how do you get this shack? Where did you - where did that happen that my family left and your family lives there now? And it looks very ramshackle because, you know, it's all the same except for just one tiny difference. There are no more Jews.

So the intensity of that visit - you know, I collected water from the river Sluch, where she almost drowned, and looked at the land and then said, this is - this was the trip of what is no longer there. And so the intensity of Palestine and Israel is many times stronger because you can see the desperation of what - and the mass graves and the mass cemeteries. And you say, this is - there was no choice. So it's incredibly moving and harrowing, in many ways, to go back.

GROSS: So you both write in the book, regarding the village - the shtetl - the men were fine, but the women were wondrous. They took care of everything and everyone, and that was a lot. What do you know about what women's lives were like in the shtetl where Sara grew up?

M. KALMAN: It was a life of endless, endless toil and - which was reproduced in Israel, so it wasn't hard for me to see that when I was a child and when we were in Israel over the years growing up - and Alex was there too - that the women's job was to take care of the home and the family in all of its extreme moments of care - making the clothes, washing the clothes on the - you know, bringing them up to the roof to dry, making three meals a day, baking on Friday, serving the men who never, ever, ever did anything in the house at all ever. So theirs was a constant level of work. And I always think of it as silent toil, you know, that you're so busy churning and cooking and cleaning that you don't have time for conversation. But at some point, you sit down. And you have a glass of tea, and then you can talk to each other. And all the years that my parents were living in the United States, my aunt Shoshana and my mother Sara wrote to each other every week, so there was a ritual.

In Tel Aviv, they would sit in the kitchen and read the letter my mother sent - my cousins and my aunt. And in New York, we would sit in the kitchen and read the letter that Shoshana sent. And by the way, they never complained. It wasn't like I would be - you know, I don't think every woman in Israel was doing what they were doing, but they had a real level of - we call it, you know, over-devotion. And what does that mean? What is that lesson that it teaches you when you see women being so over-devoted? It's a high bar, and it's also a bar that you may not even want to think - you know, to replicate. But it's all about love, and I think that's the underpinning of it in our family, anyway.

GROSS: We should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Maira and Alex Kalman. And they collaborated on the new book "Sara Berman's Closet," which is also an exhibition that's now in Philadelphia at the National Museum of American Jewish history. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Maira Kalman and her son Alex Kalman. She's a children's book author and illustrator. He has his own design company and founded the Mmuseumm, which is spelled with an extra M on either side of the word. And it's dedicated to telling stories through objects, like objects confiscated at the southern border. They collaborated on the new book and on the museum exhibition "Sara Berman's Closet." Sara was Maira's mother, Alex's grandmother. The exhibit is now in Philadelphia at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Do you think that the meaning of being Jewish changed in each home that your mother lived in - first in the shtetl in Belarus, then in Palestine, then in Manhattan?

M. KALMAN: There was definitely a shedding of ritual. And even though they - you know, so in - you know, actually, in the shtetl, they were - I'm sure they were kosher, though I don't know how they managed that. But my grandfather was devout, and so they were religious. And they lit the Shabbat candles and did - and prayers and observed the Sabbath. Palestine and Israel, a little bit less - yes, they were still kosher, but maybe they didn't like the candles on Friday. New York - all hell broke loose; shrimp cocktails, here we come.


M. KALMAN: And I think that, you know, that mirrors a sense - you know, a development in a sense, like, yes, we're Jewish, of course. And we have a cultural affinity that we'll never be able to break no matter if we wanted to or not but. But following - observing the rules certainly lessened, and those were big moments.

GROSS: Alex, when you were growing up, were you able to communicate with your grandmother? It sounds like she was not much of a talker and didn't reveal very much about her life. But I think, you know, for a lot of Jewish children who were growing up, their grandparents were either unable or unwilling to communicate what it was like and what they would often describe as the old country. So I'm wondering, like, how distant did the Belarus part of your grandmother's life seem to you? And how much of a grasp of it did you have?

A. KALMAN: I knew that there was a time and a space in her life that I didn't fully understand or didn't feel connected with. But we also - I don't think that that was a kind of a lack of communication. I think that it was a focus on the present moment and the time that we have together and the joy of this time and wanting to celebrate that and not - and her not feeling she needed me to have a deep understanding of the history; to have some sense but that the feeling of love and play in the time that we had together was much more of a priority. We were incredibly close until she died when I was about 19 years old.

GROSS: You write that her end had come in a whisper. She died - it sounds like she died in her sleep, visiting her sister in Israel.

M. KALMAN: We were all together in Tel Aviv for the High Holidays - all of us - Alex and Lulu, my sister Kika. And she - we spoke in the - we were all staying at a hotel, and we spoke in the morning and said, see you in - see you at breakfast. And we went, and we were waiting. And she didn't come down. So clearly, from the time she spoke on the phone till the time she was getting ready, she had a stroke. And she just crumpled in - on the floor, and that's how we found her.

GROSS: How old was she?

M. KALMAN: She was 84.

A. KALMAN: And the night before, she had been singing songs and toasting the family and sitting under the stars, being as happy as one could possibly be with her sister and the family around. And the photographs from the book, from that part of the story, are stills from footage that I was filming of her on that last trip, not knowing that these would become the images of her last night or the image of the beach the next morning without her.

GROSS: Do you take some comfort in knowing that she didn't go through a long period of suffering, as many people do now?

M. KALMAN: I mean, it's - we call it the death of angels because you have - because you're spared all of that. And everybody - you know, people who hear that say, oh, that should be me; that should be my end. I don't know. I mean, sometimes - Tibor was sick for five years, and that was...

GROSS: Your late husband. Yeah.

M. KALMAN: Yeah. And that was really horrific. But there were good things that happened along the way, too, although, right now, I can't remember them. But...


M. KALMAN: So, you know, whatever - there it is - whatever life gives you.

GROSS: Maira, do you think a lot about how the women in the shtetl where your mother grew up - that they toiled, as you put it - that they silently toiled, like, all day and all night, preparing the food; doing the cleaning; doing, you know, the washing of the clothes; doing everything that pertained to sustenance and care of the house and the people in it? And you - and now, Alex, as well - have devoted your lives to making art. I mean, it's such - it's just such a difference. Like, the women in your mother's village could not have afforded (laughter) to spend a lot of time making art. They had to just, like, take care of making sure there was food on the table and clothes to wear.

M. KALMAN: I don't know. There's an inevitability of what happened to us, but there was also a kind - well, I mean, there are many things that happened, but one of them is an allergy to patriarchy. And I have to say that I am crazily allergic to any man controlling a situation. And I think that - growing out of that meant you have to have your own income. And growing out of that is, how do you forge your own identity, and how do you forge your own career? So one thing certainly was connected.

And my mother - one of the few things she said to me was, you really have to have your own identity, your own money and your own work - I think more so, actually, your own money. It meant to - it meant - and really is - equates freedom - equates with freedom for many, many women, especially who had no choice. She couldn't leave my father because there was - where would she go, and what would she do? So, of course, this isn't every woman's story by any means, but it showed me how important it was to really forge your own work and never to give up on it - really never to give up.

GROSS: And the situation for you was that your husband died when he was 49, and you were on your own with two children to raise. And so it's really lucky that you had an identity and work to carry on with.

M. KALMAN: It was extraordinary. I was - Tibor and I met when we were 19 in summer flunk-out school at NYU. And one of the things that we found very quickly was that we could collaborate, and we had a kind of communication that my parents never had. And we worked together. And he was always extremely aggressive about pursuing your work and - for me, too. So I was really fortunate. And then I had a Type A maniac workaholic person as my mentor, in a way, as my colleague and lover and husband and friend. And I understood what it meant that - what it - how important it was to work.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

M. KALMAN: Thank you.

A. KALMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Maira and Alex Kalman are the authors of the new illustrated book "Sarah Berman's Closet." Their museum show of the same name is now at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

After a short break, we'll remember journalist Tony Horwitz, who died Monday at age 60. We'll listen back to our interview recorded after the publication of his book "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches From The Unfinished Civil War." And we'll hear Maureen Corrigan's review of his new book "Spying On The South: An Odyssey Across The American Divide."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


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