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A Stitch in Time

Libi Astaire

Marlene Sanders discovered quilting relatively late in life, but she’s quickly making up for lost time, creating magnificent quilts with layers of meaning

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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CREATIVE THREAD While other artists might start with a visual — an image or a color —Marlene says her starting point is an idea. “It could be an interesting commentary I’ve read on the parshah,” she says. “Once the idea grabs me, I’ll look at additional commentaries. I’ll start to work it out on paper, read some more, work some more on the sketch, and then let the idea sit for a while. It’s like sitting on an egg until it’s ready to hatch”

S ome people lead lives that follow a straight path. Marlene Sanders isn’t one of them. Not only has she journeyed great distances geographically — from the Caribbean island Curacao to Holland to Eretz Yisrael — but twists and turns on the road led her to discover the best creative outlet for her many talents.

Along the way her mother asked, sometimes with exasperation, “When are you going to grow up and stop playing?” Fortunately, Marlene is still playing. For the past decade she has been “playing” with fabrics of many textures and colors to create the dazzling quilts that will be exhibited at the Museum Sjoel Elburg in the Netherlands this summer.

Sands of Time

Curacao conjures up images of postcard-perfect beaches shimmering under a brilliant blue sky. Paradise on earth, Caribbean-style. Yet Marlene speaks about this Dutch-owned island and its capital city Willemstad, where she grew up, with a touch of sadness.

Her family can trace its roots back to Spain. After the Jews were expelled in 1492, her mother’s family settled in Tzfas, where they lived for some 400 years. When her father’s family fled, they traveled first to Holland, but moved in the 1600s to Curacao, where they were among the first European settlers.

The Jewish community in Curacao prospered. “They founded the first import companies, the first banks,” says Marlene. “They were also involved with the slave trade, unfortunately.”

When Marlene’s mother’s sister became engaged to a young man from South America, her family traveled from Tzfas for the wedding. But then World War II broke out, and they had to stay. Marlene’s mother met her future husband in Panama, and after the wedding they moved to his home in Curacao.

Marlene has memories of the island’s Mikve Israel–Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere, famous for its sand-covered floors.

“When I was little I’d play with the sand,” she admits. “The story we were told was that the sand was supposed to remind us of the desert, Midbar Sinai. The real reason was to protect the wood.”

What about another theory sometimes mentioned, about sand being a tradition of crypto-Jews back in Spain? According to this story, the Anusim would sometimes cover a synagogue’s floor with sand to muffle their footsteps, so they wouldn’t be discovered and denounced to the Inquisition. “The Jews of Curacao always lived openly as Jews,” Marlene replies. “The sand had nothing to do with that.”

Religious freedom notwithstanding, the winds of assimilation that devastated so many Jewish communities elsewhere also blew strongly in Curacao. Marlene explains that even though the synagogue was Orthodox, there hadn’t been an Orthodox rabbi in Curacao for 150 years. When she was 15, a Reform clergyman arrived at the Reform temple from the United States. He convinced the leaders of Mikve Israel–Emanuel to join with his temple and create one place of worship.

“I don’t know how he convinced the parnassim,” says Marlene. “Maybe after 150 years, people didn’t know the difference. When I was growing up, I didn’t. To me, a Jew was a Jew and a rabbi was a rabbi. But after the two synagogues joined, it all went downhill. There are still Jews in Curacao, but they’re all assimilated. Once you start nibbling at the fringes, things degenerate quickly.”

Curtain Time

By then, though, Marlene was no longer living in Cura?ao. She had attended an English-style Catholic school in Jamaica — a four-hour flight by propeller plane. When the nuns tried to turn her into a Catholic, Marlene left the school. Because there were no other options nearby, 16-year-old Marlene went to The Hague, in the Netherlands, and attended an English-style school there.

Marlene sums up her impression of the next stop on her journeys in three words: “It was cold.” It took time to adjust to the freezing European winters — especially when the living room was the only heated room in her boarding house — but Marlene remained in Holland after high school. And it was an Amsterdam event that awakened her latent creative talents.

“A friend took me to see a puppet show for grown-ups,” Marlene explains. “I had never seen such a thing before, and I was fascinated. The puppeteer had puppets as big as he was — some even bigger — and he could do everything with them. It was fascinating to watch how the audience responded. They reacted as though they were seeing real people. Afterward, I decided I wanted to do puppet shows, too.”

Marlene enrolled in a course to learn to make puppets, which she wanted to be big, like the ones in the show. She succeeded, all too well. “I couldn’t lift it,” she says of her first puppet, laughing. She therefore went back to the drawing board, and six months later she was ready to put on her first show.

Marlene did everything, from writing the story to designing the lighting and music to performing. Some of her shows were for the African National Congress and about apartheid, but many took place in institutional settings, where she performed for the patients.

Working with cloth, Marlene explains, isn’t the same as working with paint, where you can mix colors until you get the exact hue that you want. “With cloth you can only buy what there is and work with what you have,” she says

“If I went to a children’s home to perform,” she explains, “I’d first sit and watch what was going on for a couple of hours — because life is something that is always happening. Then I would take an incident I had seen and use that as the basis for the puppet show. When I performed for a group of maniac-depressive patients in a hospital, after the show we had a discussion where they talked about what they had seen and what they had felt.”

While doing her puppet shows, she became connected to Amsterdam’s Ashkenazic Orthodox community and met her husband, Jaap Sanders, a menahel of a cheder. Marlene thought it would be nice to perform a puppet show for the kids. First, though, she had a question. “I didn’t know if I was allowed to do a story based on Tanach,” she explains.

The question didn’t come out of nowhere. Earlier, a friend had asked her to do a puppet show for her five-year-old daughter and the girl’s friends. Marlene had chosen stories from parshas Bereishis. After the show, one of the girls waved goodbye to Marlene, saying, “Bye-bye, Hashem!” Later, Marlene found out another little girl told her mother that she had seen Hashem.

“When I heard this, I went, ‘Oh, no!’ ” says Marlene. “Kids think it’s real. So already I knew you had to be very careful.”

Therefore, before putting on a show for her husband’s cheder, Marlene sought an answer from a respected dayan. “I took a few of my puppets and traveled to Antwerp to ask Rav Yitzchok Tovia Weiss, today the Gavaad of Jerusalem for the Eidah Hachareidis.”

Rav Weiss, unsurprisingly, wasn’t familiar with the concept of puppet shows. After Marlene showed him her puppets, he told her, “Your question is wrong. Your question is not should you do Tanach, but are you allowed to make puppets?”

Although the conversation took place many years ago — and many miles away — one can still feel the tension of that moment in Marlene’s Har Nof apartment. Puppet shows brought her great satisfaction on so many levels — creative satisfaction from producing all the elements of the show, as well as satisfaction from knowing her shows helped heal troubled souls as well as entertain. Was all that about to end?

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