Bottling the Shoah

Bottling the Shoah

Leonia psychologist-artist reveals truths in glass-

At home in Leonia, Dr. Etta Ehrlich considers bottles that make up a diorama of Jewish life.


It’s a simple word, isn’t it? As everyone knows, it is mainly a noun – a container, generally with a long neck, usually used to hold liquids.

It’s also a verb – “to bottle” is to place something inside one of those containers.

It takes no particular act of imagination to use the word, or the object it represents. It does take imagination to see it as a symbol, a kind of blank slate, representing something else.

In old British slang – the kind of slang readers of British novels pick up – bottle means nerve. Gumption. New vision.

So, applying those lessons, we learn that Dr. Etta Ehrlich of Leonia had the bottle to take ordinary bottles, look at them as if she’d never seen such objects before, make art from them, and use them to help the rest of us see new things in old ones.

It took her a long time to realize that, though.

Ehrlich, then Etta Barnett, was born in 1930 to Sonia and Rabbi Azriel Barnett, who came from White Russia to Manhattan in about 1925. Her father led an Orthodox shul, Agudas Sheves Achim, at 158th Street and Broadway in Harlem, for about 20 years, and the family lived close by. Then they all moved to West 107th Street, between Broadway and Riverside, where the shul was on the ground floor and the family lived above, as if it were a spiritual mom-and-pop store. Ehrlich, who went to the then all-girls Julia Richmond High School, absorbed the lessons of Jewish life and watched the Depression, World War II, and then the flood of shell-shocked Jewish survivors as she grew up.

“My father was a visionary,” Ehrlich said. “He was Orthodox, and he was a socialist. He wasn’t interested in pounding religion into people, although people came to him, and there always were discussions and questions and shailes [religious questions] and everything else. Weddings, funerals, judgments, everything.

“I was always very careful. We lived in a very kosher way. I would not do anything that anyone would say anything about.”

Ehrlich was a curious and intellectually agile young woman, and in 1947, straight out of high school, she went to France, and then to England.

She went for love, to follow a young man she had loved since she was 14. “I went to France and read French authors and walked in the streets and cried because he wouldn’t marry me,” she said, as her listener’s imagination adds the black-and-white and Gauloise smoke that spirals upward all the time, even if the cigarettes aren’t lit. Eventually they did marry, but it didn’t last.

Ehrlich studied abroad for five years, transferring academic credits to City College and graduating with a degree in psychology, and then with a doctorate from Yeshiva University. She worked at a number of internships and for the city’s Bureau of Child Guidance. Eventually, she remarried and moved to Leonia with her husband, who is also a psychologist, and their three children. They joined Sons of Israel, the local Conservative shul, and the children went to public school.

“I got interested in alternative education,” she said. As a result of the efforts of a group of likeminded parents, an alternative school within the larger one opened and flourished for three years, “until it fell apart from within, when the kids started to smoke pot in the park,” she said. That was discouraging, but still “some things were not lost. Change is hard to come by, but it filtered down little by little, like ink in water.”

She saw patients at home. “When my kids got home too early, they’d have to sit in the garage,” she said ruefully. “So then we moved, still in Leonia, to the house we’re in now, and that made it possible for them to creep in quietly. Still, the question always was, ‘Are you working?'”

In 1958, Ehrlich began to get involved with a movement called sensory awareness, “which is a kind of mediation, but it also includes the mind, in that it consists of attention to whatever we’re doing at any time.” It means doing things “mindfully. Are we, for example, holding the telephone with too much energy, or using just as much as necessary?

“It’s both extremely simple and extremely difficult, because it requires our being aware all the time.”

(Ironically enough, there is a Hebrew word for that concept when it is applied to prayer. It is kavanah.)

As she did with everything else, she felt a bit of an outsider working with sensory awareness, because most of its practitioners tended not to be interested in psychology, whereas she saw the two worlds – one looking at “how past and present becomes encoded in our muscles” and the other looking at the mind – bound together. “I was interested in bringing together what happens with the unconscious and the physical manifestation of it. We can find out information just as we do by talking, because the body never lies.

“I was on my own,” she continued. “I would walk into a room of psychologists and they would look at me and say ‘Go away!’ and I’d look at them and think ‘Wake up.’

“I was an outsider always, and I still am.”’

She also is interested in Buddhist meditation, which she has practiced for many years.

All of this informed the art she began to create about 20 years ago. “It began with putting works on an old enameled bowl,” she said. “The first one I ever did had been used to feed animals. It was old and chipped. My Jewish background came out; I started putting words on it.” The words were “If not now, when?” (Those words, of course, are attributed to Hillel.)

She began finding bottles and figuring out exactly which words belonged on them. Once you start noticing them, she said, they are all over. “Yesterday, my son and I went to a parking lot in Oradell. We were waiting to pick up my husband, who was at the dentist. It was next to the train station, and he found a bottle there, marked 1920, and it says Castoria in perfect script.

“I see bottles everywhere.”

Many of her bottles have to do with meditation, but some are on Jewish themes.

“I got a bottle that was molded to look like a rabbi,” Ehrlich said. “The whole thing started to flow – the Torah, the shul, the other shul.” She put together a whole diorama, where she groups bottles together, showing both the old world and the new.

The vision she expresses in bottles is clever, but the cleverness, which she acknowledges, is in service of something deeper. “The shtetl was dead serious about the other shul, the one they don’t go to. If you didn’t toe the line, you’d be excluded from the community, and if that happened, you’d be entirely cut off. You’d be dead. So you listened.”

On the modern side, things have changed. “What pops up is the sisterhood. There was no sisterhood in the shtetl,” she said. “Now the sisterhood president is on the bimah with the rabbi.

“The first time I saw a woman on the bimah, I thought I was going to get nauseous,” she continued. “My conditioning as a child taught me that it would be like having someone naked in the middle of the shul. It was not done.

“You see that in America, the Torah has changed to just ‘thou shalt not.’

“In the shtetl, the rabbi had been the most important person, except for the rich man, but here the rabbi didn’t have the life-and-death power he had there. In the new era, people would come for the bris, the graduation, the wedding – everyone would look everyone over to see how they were doing financially.

“And then, on the modern side, there is the yente. She is there as a survivor. And beyond here, there is a little bottle for memory. It’s tucked away, but it’s there.

“It’s always there.

“That’s what Yom HaShoah reminds us about.”

Ehrlich has made other works more specifically about the Shoah. A surprisingly attractive box of tools, minimalist, functional, elegant, even, are marked Arbeit Macht Frei – work makes you free – the words that hung over many of the concentration camps. Another box, made of glass brick, “is the truth of today,” she said. “Modern life goes on” – as the figures in the brick show – “but underneath is the Shoah.” She got the idea because the glass brick is made in Germany, as the stamp on it reveals.

Ehrlich has shown her work in museums and shuls – right now, it is on exhibit in Lambert Castle in Paterson – but she hopes to place it permanently. “I hope some Jewish institution will pick up these works,” she said. “I hope they find a home.”

Meanwhile, she is excited about a new insight that has just occurred to her. “One of my other bottles says ‘Being in the now.'” That, she realized, is just the profoundly Eastern way of saying the profoundly Jewish “If not now, when?”

At 82, her worlds are combining. Not bad for a lifelong outsider.

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