Before discovering the short, poignant book of art and photographs entitled Sara Berman’s Closet, I’d never heard of Sara Berman. A quick internet search led me to two living Sara Bermans, one a British fashion designer and the other a philanthropist and former editor of The Forward. Neither is the titular figure of the book, the mother and grandmother of author/artist (and mother/son) team Maira and Alex Kalman. Their Sara was a Jewish woman from Belarus who emigrated first to Israel and then to New York. The Kalmans created their book to honor this woman, whose story is both common and remarkable.
Common is her experience of life in a small European village as part of a large Jewish family. In plain prose paired with paintings and photos, the Kalmans describe Sara’s life. “Yes, there were pogroms. Yes, there was depravation. But life was not all bad.” Here we meet a blind goose-herder and “a grandfather with a six-foot-long beard who never spoke.” Praise flows for the hard-working women of this family and for Sara and her older sister Shoshana’s proclivity for reading, eating cake, singing, and dancing. A touch of the remarkable appears when a cousin is hit by lightning while drinking a glass of tea.
Again familiar in Jewish immigrant stories is the desire to be “free.” For twelve-year-old Sara and her family, this involves sailing to Palestine. They settle into a shack near the beach, where Sara’s mother sews clothes for the girls copied from European fashion magazines, and the “Middle Eastern sun bleached the laundry a blinding white.” In this environment of poverty and freedom, Sara soon becomes an adult and marries Pesach, a “dapper” young man, despite misgivings. The two move to New York, have two daughters, the daughters grow up and go to college, and Sara and Pesach move back to Israel. Another note of the unusual involves Pesach’s fall from their third-story window to a terrace on the second, from which he emerges uninjured.
Only when Sara turns sixty and leaves Pesach for New York, taking only a single suitcase, does Sara’s life begin to shift to the remarkable. “It was a liberation,” we read, for in Greenwich Village Sara finds “a room of her own” and a schedule that meets her needs. Here she watches Fred Astaire movies and Jeopardy, writes weekly letters to her sister Shoshana, and eats pizza at the Museum of Modern Art every Wednesday. Then, in a “burst of inspiration,” she decides to wear only white.
The remainder of the book is primarily devoted to Sara’s clothing, in a closet where she keeps all this whiteness washed, starched, and tidily folded. It seems a reflection of her sunny youth as well as her mature individualism as after divorce.
When Sara dies, her children decide to keep everything from her closet, seeing it as a “work of art” they needed to preserve and someday share with the world. Ten years later, this goal is achieved as grandson Alex opens Mmuseumm and features “Sara’s Closet.” In time, the exhibit moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and eventually tours the world. Sarah’s Closet, the book’s authors declare, shares “a small and monumental story.”
I cannot help but be charmed by the little volume’s delightful details, including its stylized paintings and many photos of Sara at various ages. As with all of us, it is the little things that make up a life, at once familiar and unique. Ultimately, I cherish the authors’ message that, like Sara and so many other brave, “common” individuals, we must have the courage to make mistakes, find meaning, and simply go on.
Elyce Rae Helford, Ph.D., is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.