Fired up over Mitzi

Meet Mitzi Alper, the 80-year-old ceramicist whose volunteer work has made her a legend in her own right.

mitzi alper 88 (photo credit: )
mitzi alper 88
(photo credit: )
Dumping slabs of clay, loading and unloading kilns and preparing ceramic glazes is all in a day's work for 80-year-old Mitzi Alper of Kibbutz Barkai in Nahal Iron. Wearing a gray T-shirt, faded blue denim work apron and jeans to match, the energetic and seemingly tireless former bacteriologist and science teacher looks far younger than the years she has chalked up since her birth in New York in 1927. Alper, whose parents Joe and Sally hailed from Austria and Poland, was born a few days before the founding of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences that gave birth to the famous Oscar. The same month also saw the first demonstration of television before a live audience. A charismatic lady with a strong sense of humor and almost permanent smile, she was feted on her landmark birthday in May by ceramic art students and teachers at the Givat Haviva Art Center, who created an "Oscar" of their own for her. Alper has for the last 15 years been volunteering at the center. Over a two-week period and unbeknown to Alper, who was visiting family in America, scores of ceramicists and teachers industriously worked on a sculpture in the forecourt of the Art Center and Peace Gallery. Using 800 kilograms of special clay imported from Germany, a two-meter high kiln - using a technique developed by Danish artist Nina Hole - was created in her honor. Although born in New York, prior to aliya she lived for many years in Chicago, the hometown of her architect husband Zalman Alper. Members of the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist movement in their youth, they met at a movement conference held in Montreal in 1946 and were married three years later in Chicago, by which time both had left Hashomer Hatzair due to ideological differences. Even though no longer in the movement, they were still intent on making aliya; however family circumstances at a later stage stymied their plans. "When we decided to get married Zalman went to see Rabbi David Grobart in Chicago and asked him what he could do for two people who don't believe in God or the State of Illinois," explains Alper with a chuckle and bright smile. "I can understand your problem with the State of Illinois, but what's your problem with God?" Rabbi Grobart, a conservative rabbi and head of the Chicago Beth Din, evidently asked before eventually marrying Zalman and Mitzi in his office. Zionism runs strong in her genes. Her maternal and paternal grandfathers were present at the First Zionist Congress in Basel: Reuben Brainin represented Berlin and David Neumark - a Reform rabbi - represented Rakowitz in Czechoslovakia. "My father-in-law Max arrived in Chicago at the age of 14 in 1913, totally alone. He worked as a bookbinder and then later on his wife, who was a buttonhole maker, supported him through architectural school and Zalman followed in his footsteps," explains Alper, who studied bacteriology in New York and at the Roosevelt University in Chicago. For the last 30 years she has been living at Kibbutz Barkai and Zalman in Chicago. "Some couples have separate beds, we have separate countries," jokes Alper, who intended volunteering for a year on the kibbutz in 1978 and became a full kibbutz member a few years later. "Zalman and I are commuters. It has worked out that we spend about four months of the year together either in Chicago or here in Israel." There have also been periods when Zalman worked on projects in Israel, one of which was during the construction of the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem. The Alper's have two sons, Jonathan (55) and Josh (50), a daughter Judy (53), and eleven grandchildren. There was a long period when all three offspring lived in the Pardes Hannah-Karkur area a short distance from the kibbutz, but for family and business reasons Jonathan and Josh returned to Chicago. Judy and family these days live in Zichron Ya'akov. After completing her studies, Alper worked for a time as a bacteriologist in a public hospital before deciding to go back to school - to teach science at a junior high school. In the late l970s a new system of teacher placement was introduced in the Chicago area, and she was reallocated to a school two-and-a-half hours' journey from her home. "The reallocation of teachers was an effort to have white and black teachers evenly distributed in the schools, but the length of the journey was out of all proportion and so I took a sabbatical. Zalman was also in Israel at the time working on various projects, and I asked Barkai if I could volunteer for the year," she explains. "We had both been part of Kibbutz Aliya Vav - the sixth garin [settlement group] from north America due to settle on Barkai and of course had a lot of friends there." Barkai - "morning star" in Hebrew - was originally settled in l949 by Romanian and Polish immigrants. "I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical when the kids were already grown up," recalls Halper, who spent her first kibbutz years working in the kitchen and dining room, and then 15 years in the kibbutz laundry. She has never really left the laundry altogether, as she still spends a few hours every week dealing with stain removal. As for her involvement in ceramics, that came about in the beginning of the 1990s when the Art Center at Givat Haviva, just a few kilometers from Barkai, opened afternoon classes for adults. Alper began, while still working in the kibbutz laundry, to volunteer her assistance to the head teacher, ceramics artist Avner Singer - and neither has looked back since. Still in awe of the special event when the refractory fabric covering the ceramic kiln (which had been burning for 24 hours) was removed and the night drenched in orange, red and yellow light from the sculpture, Halper explained a little about the technique used to erect the kiln-sculpture. "Basically the sculpture - built out of flat pieces of clay placed vertically on top of each other as this is the best way for clay to support itself other than arches - becomes a kiln of its own. The base is made out of refractory bricks and is the actual firebox." There is only one other, much smaller kiln-sculpture in Israel. Some years ago Hole attended an art symposium in Israel during which she created one of her special fired-up sculptures together with other artists outside the Said Abu-Shakrah Art Galley in the nearby city of Umm el-Fahm. Over 300 former students, teachers, family and friends cheered as flames shot out of the small apertures at each level of the kiln sculpture during the innovative and unique tribute to the lady who had helped fire up their creativity.