Jewish Journal

Museum Man

Irving Belfer's home boasts Judaica that he has been crafting by hand for eight decades.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Aug. 1, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Irving Belfer has literally turned his house into a museum of Judaica.

Irving Belfer has literally turned his house into a museum of Judaica.

Every day for several decades, Irving Belfer has gone into the kitchen of his Burbank home. In what he has dubbed "The Factory," Belfer, with no tools -- save for pocket knives and Elmer's glue -- toils away using plywood pieces. After a few months, sometimes up to a year later, he creates houses, synagogues, even the State of Israel.

Well, replicas anyway....

Belfer -- a lovably impish man of 88 who speaks in a Polish-tinged English -- has been creating such miniatures for about 80 years. An observant member of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, Belfer's work primarily expresses his Jewish pride. And he has amassed such an oeuvre of Judaica folk art, that he literally turned his house into a museum. Groups of visitors, by appointment, come through the home/museum every month, where Belfer leads them on a tour, free of charge.

"When people come, they tell me unbelievable things," said Belfer, a Holocaust survivor who came to America in the early 1950s. "A lady took my arm and kissed me and said, 'Mr. Belfer, all the time you'll be in my heart.' Unbelievable, the letters I get."

Each room of Belfer's three-bedroom home is adorned with his handcrafted Judaica -- wall hangings and constructions that capture his love of Judaism, Israel and America.

The Holocaust permeates some of Belfer's work. One of his Holocaust memorials, which took nearly two years to complete, bears 600 hand-affixed stars -- each star representing 10,000 Jews -- to represent the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Symbolism such as this plays a large part in Belfer's work. For example, a synagogue replica -- call it "Congregation Beit Belfer" -- bears 18 (chai, the symbol for life) rows of 13 (bar mitzvah age) stairs. The synagogue features a dome bearing 1,186 hand-grafted shingles, a bimah, pews, chandelier and even a facsimile of Chagall stained windows.

Born in Lodz, Poland, Belfer's knack for knickknacks goes back to childhood.

"When I was a little boy," Belfer said, "all the time I made things at home."

In 1937, Belfer married his first wife, Eva Sztrauch. The couple had a boy, Baruch. Eva and Baruch died at Treblinka. Belfer survived internment in several concentration camps. In 1947, while recuperating from tuberculosis in a Gauton, Germany, hospital, Belfer reconnected with his creative side; he began making a loom -- a project he did not complete for another 15 years.

In 1951, Belfer sailed to New Orleans and took the train to Pasadena, where he had an immigration sponsor. He married Ruth Frank two years later (she passed away in December). While their only daughter, Terry Ellis, can't remember a time when Belfer wasn't whittling on something, she unfortunately did not get to enjoy some of her father's most ambitious creations as a child. She says the playland paradise he created -- kid-friendly creations such as enormous dollhouses and wooden animal menageries -- were made in the years after her childhood. However, Belfer's grandson, Ari, 23, who married in June, and granddaughter, Shana, a 21-year-old UCSB student, did grow up with these creations in their midst.

Nevertheless, Ellis grew up in awe of her father's prolific output.

"He always did something," she said.

To this day, Belfer continues to add new works to the mix. He completed a wall hanging of the American flag in March 2002 using a tweezer, some glue and a lot of patience.

But one of his favorite works lies at the end of the house, in a room that was added on some 20 years ago in order to accommodate his growing collection: Two large memorial tributes to those who died in the camps. One display bears the names of concentration camps and the numbers of Jews that were killed, along with the motto "Remember" inscribed in Hebrew and Yiddish; the other piece bears the Nazi concentration camp slogan Arbeit Macht Frei "Work Makes You Free." When Belfer plugs the cord in, the electric candles on the display light up in reverent remembrance to the 6 million Jews.

"There's no memorial in the whole world like this one," Belfer said, standing proudly by his creation. "Not in Washington, not at Yad Vashem."

His daughter agrees: "I go home and I cry to think how wonderful the work is. How one man with no tools can make all of this," Ellis said. "It gives him the best satisfaction to open up his home here."

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