Downsizing a lifetime

The owners moved to their retirement-home apartment for a number of reasons.

homes 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
homes 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
How on earth do you fit all the accumulated possessions of 70- odd years, more than 40 of them spent in Israel, into a small, 80-square-meter apartment in a retirement home? To complicate the problem, you are a very prolific artist and writer with a rich and ongoing career in education – but not in just one discipline.
You are, in fact, to use the words of owner Mel Alexenberg, “at the interface between multiple fields – art, science, technology and culture.”
The Alexenbergs – Mel and his wife of 53 years, Miriam – moved into their new home six months ago. It is in the sheltered living section of Ra’anana’s Ahuzat Bayit retirement home. Walking into the apartment feels a little like walking into a doll’s house.
It’s very neat, very compact, and most of the furnishings and fittings are white so as not to overpower the small space.
Color – and there is plenty of it – comes from flowers, plants and a few decorative items but is mostly concentrated on the walls, which are embellished with a selection of the unconventional art that both have pursued over the years.
Both in the lounge and in the bedroom are colorful pictures on wood, which make an instant impact. These were, in fact, a form of art that Alexenberg produced in the ’70s, when he would take a leaf or a pine needle, make a cross section and photograph it under a microscope and then produce the pattern in molten wax. The cellular structure, magnified many times over, is what one sees – but without knowing that, the pieces can be seen just as colorful and unusually shaped decoration.
Mel Alexenberg is also the author of many books – his life’s work has been a composite of science, art and Jewish thought – and when it came to disposing of his vast library of books, he was able to find willing recipients in some of the institutions he had worked in.
“The art books I gave to Emunah College, of which I am still the principal,” he says. “The academic books went to Ariel University, where I still teach several courses. I kept as many as I could, as I’m working on two books now, one in English and one in Hebrew.”
The Alexenbergs made aliya in 1969 with their children and came first to Ra’anana, which was in those days a small town with a country atmosphere.
“My car was practically the only one parked on Ahuza Street,” he recalls.
Over the 43 years since moving to Israel, Alexenberg has had a very rich and varied career, with professorships in several Israeli universities, stints abroad in many other prestigious places of learning and a long period spent living in the Negev before moving to Petah Tikva, where they spent the last 12 years before moving back to a very different Ra’anana from the one they had known in 1969.
One of the reasons they chose to move to Ahuzat Bayit was that Miriam began to suffer from loss of vision and eventually will be blind from the genetic illness she inherited.
A small, well-planned home which she could get to know well when she still had her sight seemed to be the answer.
They were attracted by the aesthetic qualities of Ahuzat Bayit and the professional quality of the building.
The apartment, though small, has a study where Mel can continue to write, a reasonably sized bedroom with separate bathroom and walk-in closet and a guest bathroom.
The balcony off the lounge looks out over the fields and orchards of Ra’anana, and apartments on a higher floor even have a view of the sea on a clear day.
With many reminders around the apartment of what they have both produced and achieved over the years, the place is uncluttered but with a warmth projected by the works of art. On several of the walls they have placed pictures from a series of paintings Mel did when they spent some time in Brooklyn on one of many sabbaticals.
“I was unhappy there because, after living in the beauty of the Negev, it seemed the ugliest place on the planet,” he recalls.
“Then I met sculptor Louise Nevelson – I had invited her to speak at the Pratt [Institute] graduation ceremony where I was the head of the art department – and I told her how difficult it was for me to walk down the dreary streets of Brooklyn.
“She told me to look around for what is beautiful and to try and be more receptive to the subtle beauty, even in Brooklyn,” he says. Slowly he began to photograph the Jewish delis and pizza parlors, with their Israeli names and Hebrew writing, and began painting and digitizing them. The results can be seen on several of the walls in the apartment – a reminder of the long path they have both taken to reach this point in their lives. One of his storefront paintings has been used for the cover of Fixing the World: American Jewish Painters in the Twentieth Century, edited by Ori Soltes.
With his work in 40 museums around the world, including the Israel Museum, Mel Alexenberg has surrounded himself and his wife with a tiny part of his prolific output to make his Ra’anana home a familiar and welcoming place.
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