The most talked-about closet in New York these days belonged to a Jewish immigrant who was passionate about the color white, clean lines and order.
That closet, along with its entire contents — shoes, clothes, linens, beauty products and luggage — is now on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sara Berman moved from Tel Aviv to New York with her husband and two young daughters in 1954, but according to her close relatives in Israel, she left a big part of her heart behind. Fittingly enough, she is now buried in the White City, as Tel Aviv is widely known, named after the color that ultimately became her trademark.
“She always loved Israel and would come back to visit twice a year, over Rosh Hashanah and Passover,” recalls her cousin Yocheved Aharonson, who still lives in Tel Aviv. “She adored the sea and would stay at a hotel on the beach, always in the same room. She insisted on that. Sara was known by the hotel staff as ‘the lady in white’ because that was the only color she wore.”
Aharonson and Berman were related on both sides of the family. “Our fathers were brothers and our mothers were first cousins,” says the bright and chipper 95-year-old, as she rummages through old family albums pointing out photos of her now-famous relative whose closet has been featured, among other publications, in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Vogue magazine.
Born in Belarus, Berman arrived in Palestine with her family in 1932, when she was 12 years old. Her uncle, Aharonson’s father, who had made the move seven years earlier, helped bring the family over. Before moving to a more central location in Tel Aviv, the two families lived in a run-down section of the city bordering Jaffa.
Berman’s unique sense of style stood out even then, recalls her cousin. “She was a real beauty, with dark, wavy hair and blue eyes, and all the guys were in love with her,” says Aharonson. “There was nothing extravagant about the way she dressed, but even then, she was very fastidious about her clothing.”
Dressed in a white shirt, Aharonson admits she also has a penchant for light colors. “Maybe it’s in our genes,” she jokes, “but with me, it’s nowhere near that level of obsession Sara had.”
Berman’s meticulously organized closet, on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art into November, was originally housed in the studio apartment in Greenwich Village where she lived from 1982 to 2004, from the time she was divorced until her death. The stacks of perfectly folded and starched linens and apparel, all in white and shades of beige, speak volumes about their owner.
The closet was transformed into an art installation by Berman’s daughter, Maira Kalman, a well-known illustrator and writer whose credits include several New Yorker covers, and her grandson Alex Kalman. Before moving to its more spacious and prestigious uptown address, Berman’s closet was on exhibit in at Mmuseumm, a miniature museum in Tribeca co-founded by her grandson.
Her obsession with organization and order was evident not only in her closet, says her cousin. “Once a year, I would visit her in New York,” recounts Aharonson, “and there was a fixed schedule. On Sundays, we’d eat bagels, lox and cream cheese. On Monday, there would be something else on the menu, but always the same thing on Mondays, and so on and so on. And each day, there was a schedule. You simply did not diverge from whatever she had planned.”
Berman died suddenly, during one of her holiday visits to Israel. “It was around Rosh Hashanah,” recounts Aharonson, “and the whole family was there. We were waiting in the breakfast room of the hotel for her to come down a join us. We waited and waited, and when she didn’t show up, someone went up to the room a found her lifeless on the floor.”
Aside from her cousin, Berman had a sister in Israel, Shoshana, with whom she was extremely close and who died some time after her. “My aunt Sara was like a second mother to us, as my mother was to her two daughters,” says Orna Weiss, one of Shoshana’s two daughters.
Weiss, who lives in Herzliya, used to work as a flight attendant for El Al, and every opportunity she had, she would visit her aunt in New York. “It wasn’t only her closet,” she says, “it was the entire apartment that had this minimalist feel. For that reason, you could not buy my aunt any gifts.”
Just because she didn’t accept gifts didn’t mean she didn’t love giving them. “When we were growing up, there were always packages from our family in America, and I still remember the excitement when we’d go pick them up from the post office,” recalls Weiss.
Her sister Talya Slivkovitz, who lives in Bat Yam, remembers to this day what those packages contained. “There were lots of clothes, always light-colored, usually white,” she says. “Sara hated black. I guess you could say that I’m also partial to white.”
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