The Cultural and Natural History Collections of the University of La Verne received a glimpse of Jewish life and culture pre-World War II through 14 folk-art sculptures, donated by the Malgert Halpern and Irving Cohen family.
The historical sculptures embody life in Ukraine and the United States as experienced by Henry Halpern.
The “Henry Halpern Collection of Jewish Life” is a reflection of Halpern’s life in a world before the Holocaust occurred, and after. He was born in 1895 and lived until 1979.
“The sculptures are a history book and that is what opened my heart to donating them, especially to a university where there are people who are so enthusiastic about finding a tidbit of history that nobody else can have,” said Elisa Cohen, Halpern’s granddaughter.
Elisa and Rachel Cohen, Halpern’s granddaughters, said they had been seeking a place for the sculptures for a long time when they were introduced to the University of La Verne.
The University Chaplain Zandra Wagoner said that the sculptures aligned with ULV’s core values including lifelong learning, diversity and inclusion, and ethical reasoning.
“When we saw these beautiful and expressive sculptures, it just felt like the right thing to bring to our community because they resonate with what we care about at this University,” said Wagoner. “They resonated with our values and our sense of diversity and there seemed to be a deep story that could be helpful to our campus community, to students learning about history, religion and social dynamics. These sculptures kind of do all of that; they invite us into a story.”
Anne Collier, curator of the Cultural and Natural History Collections, said that the sculptures fit with the Cultural and Natural History Collections’ mission.
“Our mission is to conserve, preserve, and share objects, artifacts, and specimens from Earth’s cultural and natural history for the benefit of current and future generations,” Collier said. “These sculptures (are) not just folk art, but a representation of Jewish life.”
Halpern was born in Shargood, Ukraine. After World War I he immigrated to the United States in the 1920s where he worked as a tailor and lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Los Angeles in 1940 with his family. When he retired, his daughter Malgert Halpern, an artist, suggested he try making sculptures out of clay.
“My mom went to the grocery store and bought him some very cheap clay. He started ‘patshkeying’ which is messing around in Yiddish and my mother told him that he was pretty good and recommended he take a class,” said Rachel Cohen. “When he went to take the class, the teacher told him that he was very good and she had nothing to teach him.”
She said he began sculpting figures inspired by memories from his childhood and people around him, both in Ukraine and in the United States. They are expressive of dynamic Jewish life such as reading the Torah at a bar mitzvah or simple everyday things like sitting and enjoying the presence of loved ones.
“He started making up scenes from his childhood and around him. He really didn’t have anything to go off of,” said Rachel Cohen.
She said he molded the clay figures’ expressions solely based on his memory and his own facial features.
“He made all these wonderful people in these wonderful situations and they were all images of himself and of his memory, which really comes through when you see them,” Elisa Cohen added.
Halpern went through a lot in his life – loss, grief, and tragedy – but he never portrayed that in his sculptures.
“Some of the sculptures are from when his first wife was in the hospital. They are parables so they show visiting the family, visiting the sick and taking care of the sick,” Collier said.
Regardless of these events, he aimed to show the best of life. None of them show the worst, Collier said.
“Even when he is visiting people in the hospital, when they are ailing it is still heartwarming. It shows the warmth of visiting and taking care of people who are convalescing. They are philosophical and deep, but they are not dark,” Collier said.
Though the sculptures are fragile from age with layers of dirt and debris, they hold such soul to them.
“These artifacts are very full of life and very fluid. They look like they are going to come alive,” Collier said.
The sculptures will be restored and preserved by the Cultural and Natural History Collections in the Jaeger House. Once the restoration process is done, which might take up to a year, the sculptures will be displayed publicly.
Collier said students will have the opportunity to be a part of the restoration process. They can help put the pieces together, both literally and figuratively, and learn what it was like living in a shtetl, a Jewish community, gain skills as a conservator, work with pottery and more.
“I hope students learn about a glimpse of an era no longer here, of what life in a ‘shtetl’, Jewish community was like in the early 1900s and even before possibly,” said Rachel Cohen. “They will have a chance to be part of something historic and to tactfully preserve something that has a chance to enrich many people’s lives.”
Collier said these sculptures are a learning resource for all students. If interested, students can potentially do an independent study course with these objects by contacting their advisers or Felicia Beardsley, director of the Cultural and Natural History Collections.
“I love the fact that they are in a place where they are so appreciated not only because of the references, but because of the cultural history and knowledge that they can bring to an educational place,” said Elisa Cohen.
For more information, visit ulvcollections.org.
Samira Felix can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of the photo caption said artist Henry Halpern was born in 1850. He was actually born in 1895. The Campus Times regrets the error.