Postage gets its due in museum show

You really don’t want to go to a show where the artist is just mailing it in — unless the artist is Shirley Familian. 

Her first solo show, “19,275 Stamps” — her count of the number of stamps it took to create the works now on display at the Craft and Folk Art Museum — not only bears the marks of being mailed in, but consequently, canceled as well.

The show, consisting of pieces in which used postage stamps completely cover various objects or are arranged in circular patterns, closes April 27. It is the result of Familian’s love of stamps — the 93-year-old is a lifelong collector — and the visual and social connections that they engender.

“Many of my friends collect stamps for me. Everybody feels part of it,” Familian said from her Westwood home, where she has set up a studio near the kitchen.

One of the objects in the show, a large, Styrofoam ball covered with stamps, depicts people from all over the world, and in her studio she demonstrated her process on another, similar piece.

“It takes time and a steady hand,” said Familian, who majored in art at the University of Washington in Seattle. “First, I cut the white off,” she said as she carefully snipped off the perforations and border of a canceled United States postage stamp depicting famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

“I’m a bit of a pack rat,” admits the artist, who recycles everything, including the pieces of paper she soaks off the stamps and the trimmed perforations.

After putting on latex gloves, she painted the back of the stamp with acrylic matte medium as an adhesive and positioned it on the globe. 

“I wonder what Andy Warhol would think of this process?” she asked, pasting Robinson next to a stamp featuring the American pop artist’s likeness. “If he’s the right color, and the right size, he gets pasted.”

Nearby, in drawers, Familian, who has been covering objects with stamps for 25 years, keeps her supply neatly sorted in envelopes: flower stamps, bird stamps, love stamps, yellow stamps, even Chanukah stamps. The circular pieces in the show — especially those consisting of concentric circles of one stamp design — make use of her collection of multiples.

One piece has a circle of Cary Grant stamps, another of Marilyn Monroe; several others make use of rings of stamps with an orange on them. Only close up does the museumgoer make out the individual images. From a distance, “They look like mandalas,” said Familian, speaking of the Hindu or Buddhist graphic symbols.

Among the stamp-covered objects in the show are a skateboard and teapot.

“I love doing objects,” said Familian, who explained that the skateboard came from a friend whose daughter no longer had use for it.

Her first stamp-covered object was a stool made for her then-2-year-old granddaughter, who needed something to stand on get to the bathroom sink.

“I was going to paint it,” she recalled. But then the thought came: “Why don’t I use these stamps?”

As for the stamps pasted over the Frank Gehry-designed teapot, they disguise a bit of a kitchen accident. While waiting for the teapot to heat water one day, the phone rang, and by the time Familian came back, it had boiled dry. 

“It was all black,” she said. “I recycled it.”

Another object in the show reconnected her to the former plumbing supply business of her late husband, the philanthropist and Jewish community leader Isadore Familian. The company is now part of Ferguson, and that’s where she found a piece of tubing several feet long — now wrapped in stamps, of course.

Other objects covered in stamps decorate her home, including a seated mannequin she has named “Coco,” positioned as if to greet a visitor.  

“I call her my tattooed lady,” said Familian, whose first husband was the late Burt Baskin, co-founder — with Familian’s brother, Irv Robbins — of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

For Familian’s next project, she wants to do something big — like a car — or, more practically, something that can be broken down into smaller parts. One result of the show is that she now has the philatelic inventory to do it; since it opened Jan. 26, people have been sending Familian their stamps, beginning with a man in Riverside who sent to the museum a manila envelope stuffed with them. 

“He said he was saving them for his retirement,” she said. But since he was 82 and hadn’t used them, he sent them to Familian.

Next, she got a phone call from a person who had two shoeboxes stuffed with stamps. 

The caller had asked if Familian could use them, to which she remembers replying, “I can use any canceled stamp,” and had a friend pick them up for her. 

Finally, a large box arrived at the museum. Inside, “There must be 25,000 stamps,” she said, raising a handful from the box.

Collecting inventory for her art, Familian also has found, is a good way to keep in touch with her circle of friends. 

“They send me post cards from their travels. They go to South America, and suddenly I have stamps from Brazil,” said Familian, who herself has cut back on travel.

“As the years go on, your life changes,” she said. “You’ve got to do something that you can do all by yourself. I couldn’t go to the club to play cards. …  Having this to do, and the drive, has just made a different person out of me.”

African stamps honor Jews who fought apartheid

Every year, Jews around the world tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in roughly the same way. And every year, familiar props help bring that story to life.

This Passover, two local Jews — a businessman and an eminent rabbi — are hoping to introduce to the seder a rarely told story about Jews who fought for freedom, bringing to the table a new object that could sit comfortably alongside the bitter herbs, matzah and charoset.

The new visual aid is three sheets of commemorative stamps, which tell the story of the many South African Jews who worked to bring an end to apartheid. The stamps, issued recently by three small West African countries, honor 12 brave Jewish activists, thanks to the efforts of Grant Gochin, a South African-born, Los Angeles-based money manager, who also serves as the Honorary Consul of Togo.

From the earliest days of the ruthless regime that denied South Africans the basic rights of citizenship, Jews were disproportionately found on the front lines of the internal resistance movement. The “Legendary Heroes of Africa” stamps were jointly released on March 1 by the postal authorities of The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Each country authorized a single sheet of four unique stamps, of which fewer than 100,000 copies were printed. Each stamp includes one individual’s name and picture, along with a Star of David and two Hebrew letters, bet and hay, the traditional inscription included on printed matter that serves as a nod to the divine assistance that helps projects come to fruition.

Gochin, who was himself involved in the anti-apartheid movement, worked for a full year to realize his idea, and when he showed the stamps to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, the rabbi saw a story that could complement the traditional narrative of the Israelite slaves being freed from bondage in Egypt.

“Here you have contemporary heroes who really did effect an exodus,” Feinstein said, “who really did bring light out of darkness, and life out of death.”

The individuals on the “Heroes” stamps are not household names. Feinstein said he knew of Ruth First, a prominent South African journalist whose anti-apartheid activism landed her in jail, then in exile and ultimately led to her being killed by a letter bomb in 1982. He had also met Helen Suzman, who for years was the lone voice speaking out against apartheid in South Africa’s parliament; she was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize and is “the best-known out of all of them,” Gochin said. “There was no way not to issue a stamp for her.”

At a time when Israel is regularly accused of being an apartheid state, Gochin wants to remind people of the true origins of the word.

“There is zero comparison between apartheid and what happens in Israel,” Gochin said. “It is an absolutely outrageous falsehood that is demeaning to the victims of apartheid and to anybody that stood against apartheid, to compare the rights that everybody enjoys in Israel to the way people were victimized in South Africa.”

That intention may explain why a few prominent Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists are absent from the “Heroes” series. Two politicians, Ronnie Kasrils and the late Joe Slovo — both as well known as anti-Zionists as for their anti-apartheid activism — are not among the 12 featured on the stamps. 

Other than First (who was married to Slovo) and Suzman, the 10 others on the stamps have received far less acclaim. “All of these people were just so ordinary and so unpretentious, down to earth and not looking for accolades,” Gochin said. “Their legacy is being forgotten, and we can’t allow that.”

Their stories all can be found on the Web site — along with those of Gochin’s aunt and uncle, Esther and Hymie Barsel.

Legendary Heroes of Africa stamp sheet from Gambia featuring, from left, Hilda Bernstein, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Ruth First, Ronald Segal.

Gochin’s cousin, Sunny Lubner, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., remembers her parents not just as leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, but as strong supporters of equality across the board. “They decided early on that they did not want to live in a society that frowned on blacks, Jews, communists, gays — everything,” Lubner said. “They were really ahead of their time in all of those issues.”

Like most South African Jews, the Barsels were both of Lithuanian descent, or Litvaks. Esther was born in Lithuania; Hymie was the son of two immigrants from that region.

“These were people coming to South Africa having experienced intense hatred against them,” Gochin said of South Africa’s Litvak Jews, many of whom arrived in the years that followed the 1915 expulsion of Jews from Lithuania. “And they got to South Africa,” Gochin said, “and they saw hatred against black people.”

Some Jews were reluctant to speak out, fearing they might make themselves unwelcome in their new haven. “At the same time,” Gochin said, “there was this other side that said, ‘How can you possibly stand by and see being done to other people what was done to us?’ You have to stand up.”

Jews made up just 2 percent of the white population of apartheid-era South Africa, but they constituted at least half of the country’s white anti-apartheid activists, Gochin said.

Signing up for the fight against apartheid was an easy way to make life in South Africa very difficult. “We always knew that our house was under surveillance,” Lubner said. “We always knew that our phone was tapped.”

Lubner was 8 years old in 1956 when her father was accused of treason, along with 155 other eminent anti-apartheid activists. “South Africa was such a police state at that point that people were afraid of being associated with us,” Lubner said. “Very few of our relatives would have anything to do with us.”

Hymie Barsel was held for three years before the apartheid-era government dropped the treason charges. While in jail, he was brutally tortured. “They were very clever,” Lubner said of her father’s captors. “They would inflict damage on the spleen, which apparently is very difficult to detect.”

Esther Barsel, who was not tried in 1956, went to prison for her part in the anti-apartheid struggle in 1964. She spent four years in jail, followed by five years of house arrest. She had to get police permission to attend her daughter’s wedding in 1968. Lubner got married in a Johannesburg synagogue 10 minutes from her childhood home. “She [Esther Barsel] had to be home by 10 o’clock that night,” Lubner recalled.

Hymie Barsel died in 1987 without seeing the fruits of his activism. Esther Barsel, however, lived to see the end of the apartheid system, which began to be dismantled in 1990. South Africa has since honored her memory in various ways — the cell where she was incarcerated has been turned into a memorial installation, and when she died in 2008, Nelson Mandela publicly mourned her passing.

African countries honor apartheid-fighting Jews with stamps

Three African countries issued a set of commemorative postal sheets remembering famous Jews who fought apartheid in South Africa.

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia issued the three black-and-white postal stamp sheets at the beginning of March.

“This stamp issue acknowledges the extraordinary sacrifices made by Jews to the liberation of their African brethren, and these stamps recognize some of the most significant contributors to global humanity in the 20th Century,” reads the introduction to a website dedicated to the new stamps.

The stamps honor from Liberia, Helen Suzman, Eli Weinberg, Esther Barsel and Hymie Barsel; from Sierra Leone, Yetta Barenblatt, Ray Alexander Simons, Baruch Hirson and Norma Kitson; and from Gambia, Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and Ronald Segal.

Stamp of Approval


A picture may be worth 1,000 words — but it will only cost you 37 cents. This month the U.S. Postal Service is issuing American Scientists commemorative stamps honoring two of the keenest Jewish minds of the 20th century: physicist Richard P. Feynman and mathematician John von Neumann.

Feynman, a free-spirited scientist, musician, linguist and bon vivant, shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics.

A native of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York, Feynman helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II, while still in his 20s. For nearly 30 years, he was a professor at Caltech, where he was equally famed for his path-breaking research as his spellbinding classroom lectures. He was also the subject of the movie “Infinity” and the play “QED.”

Caltech will celebrate the stamp issue on May 20 by screening a documentary featuring Feynman, who died in 1988 at the age of 69, and display his memorabilia and books, including his popular “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”

Feynman was honored in Far Rockaway on May 11 when the Postal Service released his stamp in a ceremony featuring drumming (one of his favorite recreations), readings from his popular works and the “renaming” of Comaga Avenue to Richard Feynman Way.

Von Neumann, born into a Jewish family in Budapest, was an innovator in quantum mechanics and game theory and is considered a chief architect of the computer age. He joined the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in 1933 as one of its original faculty and led the team that developed the pioneer IAS computer in the late 1940s.

A secular Jew, Von Neumann — who married his first wife, a Catholic, in 1930, and converted to her faith to placate her parents — passed on the specifications for his creation to the Weizmann Institute of Science, allowing it to build the first computer in Israel and the Middle East.

He played influential roles in the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and died in 1957 at the age of 53.

Also being recognized with his own stamp is lyricist E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, who is being honored in a separate Art series for “writing the lyrics to more than 600 songs distinguished by their intelligence, humanity and inventiveness,” according to the citation.

Born on New York’s Lower East Side of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Harburg is best known for his lyrics to “Cabin in the Sky,” “Bloomer Girl,” “Wizard of Oz” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” Among his most memorable songs are “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Each of the stamps features a portrait of the honoree and drawings illustrating his or her major contributions.


Campers Display the Write Stuff

Almost every summer day, the Malibu Post Office receives a large amount of mail from the several hundred Jewish campers at Camp Hess Kramer and Camp JCA Shalom, a lot of them letters home written by girls.

When the 13-year-old girls at Hess Kramer’s Cabin Rachel were asked if girls enjoy writing letters more than boys, the entire cabin shouted, “Yes!”

Letters from Jewish summer camps have not changed much since 1963, when Allan Sherman recorded the classic song, “Hello Muddah! Hello Faddah!” Kids still write about what they had for lunch, what their cabin is like and their bunkmates. Though a national Web site allows one-way e-mails from parents to kids, Jewish summer camps still expect campers to write their folks the old-fashioned way — with pen, paper, stamps and envelopes.

“This is my seventh year going to camp; last year, I had to write like one every week, and the year before, I tried to write one every couple of days,” said Hess Kramer veteran, Aaron, at 14 a part of the hipster crew at Cabin Jerry (actually Cabin Jeremiah). “Each year, I’ve written like less and less. We’ve matured, and we can handle being away from our family better.”

The girls of Cabin Rachel know that quality paper is a must for a nice letter home.

“I have Winnie the Pooh stationery,” Megan, 13, said.

“Polka-dots,” a friend said.

“Hello Kitty,” another volunteered.

One girl had two sets of stationery, and another had six.

“Boys don’t even know what a letter is,” Leah, 13, said.

“I really like to write long letters, because I can’t talk to them over the phone,” Carly, 13, said. “I love to tell my parents like everything that … I’ve done in the day.”

Care packages from home included shirts and candy.

“Girls love stuff,” said Blake, 13, whose parents sent her Cosmo Girl, now part of the Cabin Rachel library of Teen People, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, etc.

“The more I write, the more stuff I get,” one girl said .

In a world of junk mail overflowing in real and electronic mailboxes, Sara, 16, a Hess Kramer counselor in training, said, “There’s something about getting a letter that’s addressed to you.”

“E-mail gets annoying,” Carly said, “but letters, like they don’t get old.”

With so much Jewish summer camp mail flowing into the Malibu Post Office, “sometimes letters go out and take a week to get places,” said Howard Kaplan, Hess Kramer executive director.

One solution for concerned parents is the Web site, through which parents can send their kids e-mails, but their kids can only reply by regular mail.

While the Wilshire Boulevard Temple-run Hess Kramer hugs the Ventura County line near Malibu’s northern beaches, Camp JCA Shalom is close but requires a nerve-testing drive through empty, mountainous stretches of Mulholland Highway.

Once past its large Hebrew script gate greeting, Camp JCA Shalom has an almost hippie-like casualness. Jewish kids from throughout the Western United States converge at the camp, many wearing or making Grateful Dead-inspired tie-dyed shirts.

Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which runs Camp JCA Shalom, said a rule of thumb with camp letter writing is that if kids are not writing to their parents every day, that may be a sign that they are busy and happy.

Here, too, middle school-age girls rule Camp JCA Shalom’s letter-writing culture. The nondenominational camp also finds some campers writing in Cyrillic script. Of the 11 girls in this summer’s Cabin G-5 Survivors, six were from Ukrainian or Russian Jewish families.

“I wrote about five letters in Russian,” said Diana, 12, who had just received a one-page letter written alternately by her mother and father.

Among the 10- and 11-year-old boys in Cabin B-4 Shizzles, postcards were preferred over letters, partly to avoid wasting time during summer camp’s short but memorable window of fun.

“We’re brothers for three weeks,” Austin 10, said. “Everyone in our cabin is like our family, our second family.”

“We’re never homesick!” shouted another B-4 Shizzles camper.

In Cabin G-5 Survivors, Mylan, 12, wrote 10 letters in three weeks. “I’ve written some to my parents so they don’t worry about me,” she explained.

Alissa, also 12, said she writes her own letters, but said that for her younger brother who’s also at the camp, “my mom has to pre-write all the letters and put stamps on them — he writes the letters but [not] the envelopes.”

That afternoon’s mail call included a letter from Alissa’s parents — about one-and-a-half ink-jet-printed pages. Spilling out of the envelope as she opened it were small silver and blue Star of David stickers, which she shared with her camp friends.

Philatelists Give Israel Stamp of Approval

Alan Beals started collecting stamps as a boy. In the ’80s, when a flood of new issues from the U.S. Postal Service swamped his enthusiasm, Beals stumbled into the obscure niche of Judaic philatelists. Along the way, his hobby yielded a self-education in American Jewish history and led to his publishing a catalog for a rare breed of stamp collectors like himself who covet Jewish charity seals.

This month, Israel’s postal authority plans a limited issue clock tower stamp series that niche hobbyists like Beals are eager to obtain. The special issue recognizes a Tel Aviv exhibition this month, Telabul 2004, that lures exhibitors such as Robert B. Pildes, of Evanston, Ill., president of the U.S.-based Society of Israel Philatelists.

Beals, 70, is vice president of the society’s 30-member Los Angeles-Orange chapter. A bookcase in his Tustin home holds volumes of pristine stamps on subjects such as bonsai trees and Winston Churchill along with stamps of Israel.

His own specialty is rare: Jewish charity seals of the last century, which he finds at stamp shows and on eBay. Only annual issues from the Jewish National Fund are commonly available. His quarry are obscure ones issued by 166 other groups, such as a "To Answer Coughlin" seal. Its recipients backed ads to undercut the anti-Semitic, Catholic radio commentator during the ’20s.

After researching the origin of each seal he finds, Beals’ adds a summary and a scanned picture of the seal to his catalog, now at 240 pages. About 100 like-minded collectors have purchased the volume, which was copyrighted in 2001 and self-published.

"I learn of more every day," he said, such as the intriguing $4 purchase he made recently online. A swastika outlined in Hebrew turned out to be two intertwined snakes bordered in Yiddish with a political message: "Do not buy merchandise from bloody Hitler’s country."