ESSAY: The Lives of Objects: On Maira and Alex Kalman’s “Sara Berman’s Closet”

Sara Berman's Closet A Small and Monumental Story sits on a sidewalk in Philadelphia. A white box filled with pale clothing and other objects behind glass, it rests just outside the National Museum of American Jewish History. Sara Berman’s Closet has been shown this way before — outside and in the midst of the busy world — but right now, it seems like a misplaced relic, almost like the phone booths that once stood on city streets. The abridged version of Sara Berman’s story is written on several walls in this box in half-curly handwriting: Berman was a girl from Belarus who moved to Palestine, then New York, then left her husband Pesach, carrying only a suitcase of the objects you see in this closet. The contents of the suitcase are then described in detail, down to the 13 pairs of socks (that she ironed).

The most fascinating aspect of Sara Berman’s Closet, however, is neither the particularities of her story on its own nor any individual item or work of art on display, but rather its presentation as a continual mythologizing of a very real person’s life. Sara Berman (1920–2004) was the mother of artist Maira Kalman, who organized the original presentation of this exhibition with her son Alex for the New York City’s Mmuseumm in 2015. It then traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017 and was adapted into book form by the Kalmans in 2018, containing much of the same material as the show.
 As written in the text for the outdoor closet installation, the story is simple, and it leaves viewers with a version of this woman named Sara Berman that is only unpacked further if one chooses to go into the full exhibition. The emphasis on her movement and journeys is unmistakably Jewish, as is the detail of the single suitcase that she carried like so much unleavened bread on her back.

Physically, the exhibition is structured for audience members like the pages of a children’s book, albeit organized from right to left. The sections of the story, and of Sara Berman’s life, are divided neatly into chapters, and each one draws upon the audience’s familiarity with various narrative tropes and genre conventions.

Berman herself is presented initially as a kind of ingenue, a heroine of the pastoral adventures hinted at by the show’s opening words: “in the little village of Lenin in Belarus…” It is a testament to Fiddler on the Roof’s ubiquity that every story about Jewish communities living in the Soviet Union is reminiscent of the world of Anatevka — the loving family in the shack by the river, the hardworking women who run the house and everything else, the stern grandfather with the long beard. A scaled-down recreation of the family’s shack sits in the corner of this section of gallery space, filled to the brim with the goose feathers the family plucked and otherwise containing only a table and chair in the way of furniture.

Even this early stage of the exhibition, and of Sara’s life story, notes the first dip into unreality. The wall text by the shack notes that it is a recreation — “not the actual shack” — but further recreated items in the show are not given that same cheeky notation. The shack the family lived in did not really consist merely of a chair and a table with calf-deep feathers across the floor, but the presentation of the home as such — and a purposeful one given that the shack itself is indicated as being a recreation — shows the storyteller’s mind at work in paring down Sara Berman’s life for its key details. The items that do remain are given that much more focus, transforming from everyday objects into icons in their own right.
This pared-down design aesthetic parallels the simply worded text written on the gallery walls in an embellished font resembling handwriting, and pale walls seem to stand in for book pages, deepening the exhibit’s story-book qualities and the disconnect between the actual documentation of Berman’s childhood with what comes across as fiction. For example, the children of the village of Lenin are depicted in a black-and-white photograph, their heads freshly shaved, with both Sara and her sister Shoshana highlighted; only a few feet away is Kalman’s watercolor illustration of the time Berman’s grandfather pulled her out of the river with his beard. Truth may be stranger than fiction: Maybe this grandfather did in fact use his beard as a makeshift rope to save the child from drowning. Yet every family has its tall tales. Presenting this story alongside an evidential artifact places both stories on unsteady ground, while also suggesting the truth of both possibilities. They are both documents, in other words, of what happened and how the people to which it happened chose to view it and remember it.

Sara Berman’s Closet is an all-ages exhibit, which leads to a few moments where the language, or lack thereof, comes across as jarring. The opening text, for example, mentions pogroms in the little village of Lenin, Belarus, but this section of the exhibition does not go further in recounting the larger violences that led to Sara Berman’s family leaving for Palestine. This trip is accompanied by a shift in genre from pastoral family drama to a warm-hearted immigrant’s tale, replete with a charming anecdote of Berman being given her first-ever orange while on that ship. “This is the only story that survived the trip,” the text notes somewhat ominously, a story in and of itself about the editing and elision Sara Berman and her family surely undertook as they grappled with moving from their home to a new country.
Between photographs of the now-adolescent Sara and the recreation of the sand that littered the floor of their new home like so many goose feathers, the tendency toward story only grows greater and greater. Statements like “everyone was madly in love with Sara,” including people like Franz Kafka, Gandhi, Toscanini, and Gertrude Stein, seem manufactured specifically to exploit this territory between stories and fact. Sara Berman was an avid reader and clearly interested in arts and culture; does that language mean that she loved reading Kafka and Stein and listening to Toscanini, and that she felt rewarded and loved by their works in return, or that somehow Sara personally met and charmed Kafka, Toscanini, and Stein? The former seems obviously more likely, but then the display of Toscanini’s trousers immediately adjacent, along with the fact of his having led the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel Aviv while Sara lived in Palestine, creates a deliberately uncanny soup of time and place and circumstance where Sara and Toscanini very well could have met. Berman was beautiful, and she probably had many suitors — that much is explicable under a hyperbolic, hagiographic statement along the lines of, “everyone loved your grandmother. She was the talk of the town!” But insisting that “Kafka was Krazy [sic] about her,” “Gandhi was gaga for her,” and “Toscanini proposed marriage,” further destabilizes the idea of fact within the small, sealed world of this show.

What makes Sara Berman’s Closet feel actively narrativized, rather than a work of pure history, is the very purposeful blurring together and flattening of multiple layers of reality and truth within Sara’s story. The objects on display comprise a mix of actual documentation from Sara’s life, treating each detail as an equally important aspect of the story, despite their varying degrees of distance, time, and kind from the “real” items. The organizing principle can be perhaps best described as combining documentation, recreation, and illustration. We have Sara Berman’s marriage certificate (documentation) placed in concert with a facsimile of the orange Sara was given on the ship to Palestine (recreation) and Kalman’s watercolor images dramatizing various single events from Sara’s life, such as her husband Pesach almost falling to his death from their apartment building (illustration).
As I have suggested, the actual artifacts also do not tell the whole story, even the items that Berman herself owned. Sara Berman’s Closet includes photographs, for example, for which Berman very purposefully cut Pesach out of after she left him, leaving only a fragmented image of herself behind. The narrative text points out that she could have simply thrown the photographs away, but she kept them and instead modified them to tell the story she wanted told — an act of self-mythologizing and narrative-making where she chose to change the physical proof of a memory and change the meaning of the photographs altogether.

These interventions combine with the documentation, recreation, and illustration to construct another layer of reality within Sara Berman’s Closet that weaves together all of the previous categories to present a very particular version of the truth about Sara Berman’s life that may not be exhaustive but ultimately reveals quite a lot about Berman herself. Sara exits the marriage, and Pesach exits the narrative with merely a coy line about how that’s a “whole other story.” The show has excised him as neatly as Sara sliced him out of her photographs and memory, and he is never mentioned again in Sara Berman’s Closet.
When Berman left her husband, she took only one suitcase; every item in said suitcase has been exhaustively cataloged and photographed, from the table linens to the three watches she wore at all times. The closet itself, of course, sits out on the street, offering an immediate context of its assembly but not the whole story of Berman’s life. The closet is evidence of the tangible and intangible things she chose to carry, and “a way to create order out of chaos.”

The last chapter of Sara Berman’s life is the most triumphant one: the independent woman finally living her life as she sees fit. The setting of Sara’s new studio apartment in the city creates another opportunity for this mixing of documentation, recreation, and illustration. The key to her apartment — although it may well be a reproduction — is given pride of place and hung on the wall; the orange dog sweater Sara knit is laid out only inches away from “her toast.” One day, Berman woke up and decided to wear only white clothing “in a burst of personal expression,” which goes a long way in explaining the all-white aesthetic of both the closet box and the walls of the exhibition. Sara Berman becomes mythologized yet again as the woman inexplicably in white, ineffably cool and warm-hearted. The viewers are invited at the beginning of the show to borrow one of the white coats hanging on the wall, an interesting way of leading the audience to fill in the emotional gaps of Sara Berman’s story by draping themselves as her.

The exhibit deftly uses the objects that belonged to Sara Berman, either in documentation, recreation, or illustrative forms, to reinforce the early impression of her bravery, precision, and sentimentality. Yet Sara Berman’s Closet is as much about the nature of memory and storytelling as it is about Berman herself, and it is missing a certain attention to affect. I found myself, for example, wishing for more of a look into Berman’s emotional states over the course of her life — for glimpses into the Jewish girl who emigrated with her family for a better life, the young woman who was not sure she wanted to get married on her wedding day, the woman in America who missed her family oceans away, for the survivor of a bad marriage who set out on her own at the age of 60 to remake her life. The most honest and moving expression of emotion comes at the end, in a video of Sara embracing her sister Shoshana on a visit to Israel. It is a perfect end to the storied life of Sara Berman — she celebrated one last dinner with Shoshana and other members of her family, and she passed away in the night.