There’s something slightly thrilling and illicit about peeking into a stranger’s closet. A closet, of course, can be a metaphor for repressed sexuality or a literary gateway to another land. But sometimes a door can be a window.
That’s the case with “Sara Berman’s Closet.” It began life as an exhibit in a tiny Tribeca gallery in an old freight elevator shaft in 2015 and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. The closet–yes, an actual closet, behind a rope, shelves looking as they did when the owner filled them–contains a universe. But if you’re not in Los Angeles (where the closet will appear at the Skirball Museum next month) or Philadelphia (where it will be at the National Museum of American Jewish history next spring), fear not: Sara Berman’s Closet is now a compact little art book by artist Maira Kalman and her curator son, Alex.
Sara Berman was Maira Kalman’s mother, who died at age 84 in 2004. The book—which combines Maira’s bright, lush acrylic paintings with family pictures, dispassionate photos of Sara’s possessions, and Maira’s characteristic handwritten text with its unpredictable loops and internal capitalizations—tells the story of Sara’s small, big life. It began in the Old Country.
In the little village
of Lenin in Belarus,
There lived a large and
reasonably happy family.
They lived in a collection
of shacks next to the
Muddy River Sluch.
In 1932, when Sara was 12, her family fled Lenin on a ship bound for Palestine.
A sailor gave her an orange
the first she had Ever seen.
That is the only story that
survived the trip.
The family settled in another shack, this one on the beach near Tel Aviv.
The Middle Eastern sun bleached
the laundry a Blinding white.
Fanatically starched and pressed
linens were folded precisely.
The clothes were so heavily
starched, they could get up
and Walk away.
Sara grows up. She marries the handsome Pesach, despite her misgivings, and gives birth to two daughters.
The family moved
to New York City, where they saw their
first television set and drank their
first Coca-Cola. They read Vogue and Life.
They ate Egg Rolls and Spareribs every
Sunday night at BO SUN Restaurant.
When the girls go off to college, Sara and Pesach move back to Tel Aviv. But at the age of 60, after 38 years of marriage, Sara packs a small suitcase and leaves her husband. She moves to a tiny studio in Greenwich Village, and curates a disciplined yet joyful life there. She furnishes her studio with child-sized green school chairs, fluttery white curtains, whimsical beachballs that look like world globes. We see photos of everything.
She was happy at last,
in a room of her own.
She edited out useless
distractions. She cherished
the small moments,
which are the sweetest.
Every action was done with care. Every day
was filled with
precise and brilliant
Sara decides to wear only white. The book’s front cover is Maira’s painted rendering of a photograph of Sara we see late in the book: all in white, posing against a wall of bright pink bougainvillea, sporting gorgeously bobbed, pure white curly hair; chic, round tortoiseshell sunglasses; an oversize white suit and a man’s tie.
Maira and Alex painstakingly list and photograph the contents of Sara’s closet. There are seven bras, 12 T-shirts, 13 pairs of socks. Everything is ironed (including socks and underpants) and militaristically folded. There’s a recipe box, candlesticks, an iron, a tiny folding travel clock, a jar of white buttons. The potato grater, which she uses to make latkes, gets its own full-page photo. There’s one splash of color–a bright red pompom attached to the light chain.
Before anyone had ever heard of Marie Kondo, Sara Berman made a choice to prune her life and figure out what brought her joy. Her precision makes the reader (or museum-goer) think about the limitations of measuring out one’s life with coffee spoons, and also about the bravery of creating limits. How do we make meaning, find comfort, see the beauty in a world that can be cruel? Sara’s choices make the reader ponder: How do we measure a life? The book itself feels crafted with the same kind of care. Even the endpapers are precise yet soothing: a tight close-up of Sara’s meticulously folded bathrobes and towels, a symphony of white in a variety of waffle-weave textures.
Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.