When other people look at a piece of matzah, they might think about Pesach; about the seder, about the Exodus, about their guests, about crumbs on the rug and months later crumbs in the sofa cushions. They might think about horseradish or hard-boiled eggs.
Ronnie Streichler of Fort Lee thinks about building materials, and she thinks about the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She thinks about art.
And then she builds the wall with the matzah — and it is art.
Ms. Streichler has been able to look at one thing and see it both as itself and as something else since she was a child, she said. Much of her work is done with recycled materials — she can look at a piece of drywall, say, and see a bowl. So now, as she is about to open a show at the Fort Lee Library, is a good time for us to look at what it is that she sees. (See box.)
Although she was born in the Bronx, Ronnie and her family moved to Englewood when she was 10 years old. It was 1951. “Baumgart’s already was there then,” she said; the restaurant and its ice cream has remained a Palisades Avenue fixture ever since. The Jewish community was nascent at the time. “I went to B’nai B’rith in Teaneck,” she remembers.
Her mother, Yetta Berger, who died recently at 103, “was the first woman insurance broker in America,” Ronnie said. Her father, Benjamin Berger, also became an insurance broker — “she was in general insurance, and he sold life,” their daughter said — but before that he worked for the record company RCA. “He knew Frank Sinatra; his wife, Nancy, was pregnant with Nancy when my mother was pregnant with me,” Ronnie said. “I didn’t know them.” Because he worked for RCA, her father was able to bring home “original demo records of everything.” They eventually got thrown away. “I think that’s what started my recycling,” she said. “When you wake up and realized what’s been given away.”
The Englewood public schools, like the neighborhoods they served, were segregated, at least de facto, during her time there. “I believe that we were the first classes in America to be bused,” she said. “It was in 1957. They took our all-white class and put us in an all-black school for one class.” Because the class was kept together, “we never saw a black kid.
“It was a geometry class. Mr. Alfonso taught it, I remember, and the only other thing I remember is that he had beautiful blue eyes. But they put us on that bus — it wasn’t every day — and then they took us back.
“There are the things we remember.”
Her parents moved the family to Tenafly before her senior year in high school, so she graduated there. “There were only three Jewish kids there then,” she said. “They were not welcoming. It was horrible.” From there, she went to the University of Bridgeport.
During her time in college, “I went on a Freedom Ride,” Ronnie said; in other words, she joined other civil rights activists to desegregate stores, restaurants, and other local businesses. “We left from Yale by bus, to integrate a bar and restaurant in La Plata, Maryland. It was 1962.
“We walked down the street, seven of us — three blacks, three whites, and the black spokesman, and it was like an old cowboy movie. People pulled the shades down on their windows as we walked by.
“We had been told to go into the restaurant, to integrate it, so we walked in and said we wanted a drink. They said we could stay, but the blacks would have to go into the back. We all went. It was a little dinky room. The sheriff came in and said that we had to leave.
“We had been told that we should not be arrested” — there were so many Freedom Riders that there weren’t enough support people to help bail everyone out — “so we had to leave.”
Was she scared? No, she said; her parents were supportive, and there were other women in the group. Of course, she added, that was before the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, Freedom Riders who were killed the next year. That, she acknowledged, might have changed things.
After that, she went to Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, where she got a master’s degree in special education. Back in Bridgeport, in a mental health center, “there was a kid, and a dog, and I saw that no matter how many times the kid kicked him, the dog kept coming back.” As a result of that experience, later she wrote a paper, “on Easton Corrasable Bond paper, on animal therapy.”
When she was at Columbia, she did her student teaching at Bellevue, and later she got a job there. “My annual salary was $5,900, and I got $600 extra for working with emotionally disturbed children,” she said. “The kids were on medication, they were always drugged, there always were conferences, and you couldn’t make lesson plans.” It was easy but disturbing work, Ronnie said; she has maintained her interest in special education, even though she no longer works in the field.
Meanwhile, in 1963, Ronnie married Allan Streichler; they have two daughters, Jamie and Benett; Benett, her husband, and their two daughters live right down the hill from her parents, in Edgewater.
The family moved first to Fort Lee, and then to Tappan, then Orangeburg, where they stayed until their daughters graduated from high school. Then to Englewood, and then, “because I didn’t have that much room to putter there,” to Rockleigh. The house — an old one, on four acres, came with a big barn, and so they could have sheep. So they did. Eventually they moved, after re-homing the sheep, because sheep-keeping is constraining.
They now live in a Fort Lee apartment with a jaw-dropping view of the city; it’s filled with Ronnie’s art, as well as eclectic pieces she’s collected that somehow fit the space so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine what else possibly might have worked there.
Her eye must be at least partly inherited; her brother, Richard Berger, collects, exhibits, and sells crystals and other natural formations.
After she had children, Ronnie stopped working in the city, but she never stopped working. At first, “I was doing projects at home,” she said. “Stained glass. Jewelry I played round. Later, I taught stained glass workshops in Orangeburg. But I had to keep hands busy — if I wasn’t doing anything else, I was eating,” she deadpanned.
She’s never been what people conventionally associate with the word “artist.” She doesn’t paint or draw. But “I’ve always worked with my hands,” she said. “I always did stuff around the house.” She put things together to make other things. Once, when her parents were on vacation, she broke through a cement block wall to install a television set that until then had just been freestanding. “I wasn’t intimidated by cement blocks,” she said. Luckily, her parents were pleased with the installation project.
“When I was a kid, I remember saving all my plastic milk cartons to build a house with them,” she said. “Because my aunts were twins, way before Andy Warhol I made a Wrigley Spearmint ad with pictures of them; I used a box from an ironing board.” She won a contest that Foodtown in Englewood sponsored. “I won first prize, and that was the only time I ever felt discriminated against — not because I was a girl, and not because I was Jewish, but because of age discrimination. The guy asked if my parents had done it, because I was so young. And they assumed I was a boy, because my name was Ronnie.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable with tools,” she continued. “My favorites are my table saw, my mitre box saw, and my bandsaw.” They’re all in her workshop.
So — there is Ronnie, restless, competent, ready to use her hands, ready to make things. She’d done things all along — she decorated the Bloomingdale’s in Paramus, and two Ethan Allen stores, one in Newburgh and one in Spring Valley. She opened and ran the Ronnie Streichler Gallery in Englewood. She became the curator of the Holocaust museum at the New Synagogue of Fort Lee, and she designed the town’s first community garden. She became a photographer.
All that time, she kept making art. She’s exhibited at the Liberty Science Center, at the Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton, and at the Hackensack Medical and Environmental Center, as well as at many local libraries and other venues.
So what is Ronnie’s art? What does she do? Or at least, what kind of art is she making now?
She recycles; right now, she’s working with materials left over by construction projects.
She sees potential in objects; they can be turned into other things.
One of her materials is drywall; it’s light, durable, and makes lovely bowls, among other things. “USG, the drywall company that makes Sheetrock, says that they have never seen anything like it,” she said; she’s featured in the company newsletter. Another is cardboard, which is almost infinitely reusable. Another is Trex, a composite made from wood shavings, end-of-life pallets, and old plastic bags. It’s used for decks, so it’s basically un-ruinable. “I try to see what I can do with things,” Ronnie said. “It’s so dense, and it doesn’t splinter. And it’s pretty organic. I want to know my exposures, and I don’t work with toxins.
“I do wear a mask when I work with it, but still…”
She uses Trex for signs, among other things; she cuts letters out from it.
“I see things that will be beautiful,” Ronnie said. “I see their future. I see a different future in everything. I see a journey.
“I was given a gift. I can’t draw — but I can see.”
Who: Ronnie Streichler
What: Is presenting “Talking Trash: The Metamorphosis of Stuff”
Where: At the Fort Lee public library, 320 Main St.
When: From now until the end of October; meet the artist reception on October 22, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
For more information: Go to fortleelibrary.org or call (201) 585-0375