Big Exhibit Examines Impact of Small Space

Sara Berman’s closet.
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History

Sara Berman’s Closet, the National Museum of American Jewish History’s (NMAJH) first-ever public art installation, provides a far more intimate experience than one might usually assume is possible on the corner of Fifth and Market streets.

In a vaguely mausoleum-ish structure on the sidewalk, the contents of Sara Berman’s wardrobe have been meticulously reorganized and placed in a small closet with a pane of glass in front. The structure stands in the shadow of Moses Jacob Ezekiel’s Religious Liberty statue, and faces Independence Mall.

The exhibition is the product of a collaborative project between Maira Kalman and her son, Alex Kalman. Maira, Sara Berman’s daughter, is an internationally known illustrator, having drawn many covers for The New Yorker, among a variety of other artistic endeavors. Alex Kalman is a multimedia artist and nonprofit founder who also founded the internationally recognized Mmuseumm in Manhattan.

But before getting into Berman’s story and the exhibit within NMAJH: There’s much to be said for the simple, unadorned structure.

Overlooking the birthplace of religious and individual liberties in the United States, and in the shadow of Ezekiel’s “Goddess of Liberty” statue, the contents of one woman’s closet are a representation of what that ends up looking like in the real world. Namely, the small, physical choices that people make that are meant to express what is ineffably them, whether it’s six fluffy white sweaters or a variety of Gucci bags, some fake, some real.

Below an idealized feminine Liberty sits a tiny woman’s liberty, without the soaring rhetoric of the former. Simply standing on its own outside of NMAJH, free for entry, Sara Berman’s closet is a small, warm delight that asks you to think about what your own freedom and liberty actually mean.

Sara Berman

If you’re so inclined, you can go to the museum’s fifth floor, where Sara Berman’s Closet’s is given context. Viewers are invited to walk through an item-based history of Berman’s life, which is both fascinating for its uniqueness but also, in broad terms, a stand-in for the Ashkenazi Jewish experience of 20th- century, post-Holocaust life.

Throughout the floor, artifacts of her life are surrounded by Maira’s handwriting, lyrical recollections of her mother’s life, and small paintings that illustrate moments that Maira only knew secondhand. There are photos, short videos, magazines and a pair of pants belonging to Toscanini, for some reason. There are recreations of the pork ribs she came to love as she assimilated into the United States, and deeply personal letters she wrote to her sister.

The writing on the wall is as clear and as loving as the paintings, and the overall effect is to give shape to the life of the woman with the closet out on the sidewalk.

Berman was born in Belarus to a large family, then emigrated to Mandatory Palestine. She married a man named Pesach, had children and a life, and then, at the age of 60, took a single suitcase and went to live closer to her daughters in New York City. “It was a liberation,” Maira wrote on the wall.

Berman lived another life in New York and cut a striking figure in her typical all-white outfits as she made her mark on the city, and it made one on her. At the end of the exhibit, the passing of time in her own life is paired nicely with the changing world, as her rural, shtetl life concludes with home-recordings of reunions with her sister in present-day Israel. The subtitle of the exhibition — “A Small and Monumental History” — is quite fitting.

What the Kalmans have achieved is no small feat. Sara Berman’s Closet is about so many things: how the items we select out of the hugeness of the world define us and how we define them, the experience of a very specific period of Ashkenazi Jewish life, what feminism meant for its practitioners when the concept was young, the way that one’s dress affects and reflects themselves and, of course, the life of a woman who seems to have been an utter delight to be around.

Sara Berman’s Closet opens April 5 and runs until Sept. 2.

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