By Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Sara Berman lived. Born into a European world that no longer exists, she moved to the US, raised a family, got divorced and discovered her inner Marie Kondo before Marie Kondo was even born. Sara Berman’s Closet, currently on view at the Skirball Museum, proves that even the KonMari Method™ has its roots in a Jewish Grandmother, and is a standing altar to the fastidious ways of our foremothers.
At a recent event for the “closet opening,” Maira Kalman, Sara’s daughter and renowned New Yorker cartoonist and author, emphasized the significance of the closet as a form of personal expression. In an effort to reveal her authentic self, Sara began wearing only white, and spent the last three decades of her life simplifying her wardrobe, home, lifestyle, and closet. It wasn’t so much an act of minimalism, as it was a desire to remove the barriers that inhibited her authentic self from revealing its inner elegance.
At a time when our lives are filled with clutter – from our schedules, media, bills, social media friends, and more – how do we reclaim our authentic selves?
This week, we dedicate Torah reading Tetzaveh to Sara’s memory, as it contains the final verses of the pericope concerned with all matters of building of the Mishkan, the role of the Priests and the collections in their closets and pantries. Tetzaveh gives us an insider’s view of the maintenance of the Temple — how to light a menorah; how to make a ram sandwich; and how to organize the Temple closet. In its punctilious description of all things Temple oriented, we are reminded of the God Within the Details.
Indeed, like the redolence of the herbal incense, I am reminded of Chanel Perfumes. Throughout my childhood, I remember visiting the grandmothers of my friends’ homes, and the ubiquitous presence of a large glass sculpture containing the golden liquid with its scent; it wafted throughout their homes. For a generation of woman, Sara Berman included, a signature scent was chosen in early adulthood and adopted for a lifetime. Like the incense offerings in the Temple, the scent brought with it a specific memory and meaning. Do you remember your Grandmother’s scent? In a life of clutter, we’ve lost our trail in a confusion of olfactory stimulus. Perhaps our national obsession with sparking joy through space clearing is an understated act of defiance against materialism and Search for God, akin to the simple instructions of how to light a menorah, how to dress as priests and re-introduce ourselves to simply and with simplicity enter into the Temples of our Lives. Perhaps in a world where we are all encouraged to “get out of the closet,” we need to also go back into them before coming out, and, like Sara, Maira and Marie, clean up our interior so that we can reclaim our essence and share it with the world, unequivocally, as we emerge beaming, blazing, shining menorahs of Human Light.