September 18, 2017
Wanda Peretz. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

The lower level of Wanda Peretz’s Beverlywood home is also her art studio, where the 56-year-old works with fabrics of all sorts, and while she stitches together the fabrics and embroiders them with English and Hebrew letters, she’s also strengthening the seam of her Jewish connection.

On the worktable were some of her “greatest hits,” including Torah scroll covers, tallit bags and etrog boxes, covered in vibrant fabrics and decorated with Jewish images and words. The items were on loan from the respective places that had commissioned them: Milken Community Schools, Ruach Nashim and Temple Beth Am, where Peretz and her husband, Avi, are members.

One item, a tzedakah box, was a class gift from Milken middle school students. In designing it, Peretz had a conversation with Milken students about the concept of tzedakah and then shaped the project according to their answers: For them, charity was not just about money. Peretz pointed out the box’s two slots: one for money and the other for ideas about tzedakah projects or reports of tzedakah-related experiences.

The artist shook it so the coins inside jingled. “I feel like one of my jobs is to take objects that have been done — and you see them in every single Jewish museum in the world … this is a tzedakah box and here’s the chuppahs and here’s the challah covers, and it’s like, Oh! I get to do my own interpretation of that!”

During an interview, Peretz was enthusiastic, wide-eyed and energetic as the conversation ranged from her 1996 conversion to a more recent trip to Poland to the meaning of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.

Raised Presbyterian, Peretz went to church with her family, but found herself rejecting one core component of her religious upbringing. “We’re going to heaven but everyone else, unless they believe, they’re going to hell? I don’t think God is that small.

“I found Judaism to be a very solid ground on which to reinvent and refine who I am as a spiritual seeker,” she said. “I always had Jewish boyfriends and loved ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I know everyone loves ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but I’m crazy about ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ So was I in a shtetl? I bet I was!”

Peretz doesn’t mean this just generally, artistically or metaphorically.

“I believe in past lives,” she said. “I could have been one of the apprentices, painters painting the synagogue. I don’t think, ‘It’s just this life and then it’s over.’ ”

She also talks about life’s dualism: “If there are good people, there’s going to be bad people, good weather, bad weather. People say, ‘I want world peace’ and I’m like, ‘Good luck with that.’ You’re not going to get world peace until you do all your work and you go back.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the discussion turns to politics. While she and her husband vote Republican, Peretz was “so surprised” when Trump won, but says it happened because “the system needs to be broken apart.”

An etrog holder (left) and tzedakah box made by Wanda Peretz Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz.

“In my belief system — again, just mine — it’s like, there are bigger forces at work here. He represents old male energy, and it’s having its last hurrah. Something’s got to shift, something’s got to change, like planetary consciousness. I think he’s the dream figure. Do I think he’s a nice man? No. He’s about ‘I’m right, it’s about money, it’s about power.’ But that’s what politics is.”

She also harbors a distaste for political conversations that are “not just debates but arguments in which real awful things are said. … That tears me apart. They’re just beliefs. They are important, but we’re supposed to labor in love and help each other out.”

Peretz doesn’t have a TV, so she sees the news only online, but she said that what is shared is mostly opinion. She said she identifies more with being in the middle.

“I’m always listening —  where are they coming from and what are they trying to convince me of? Everyone’s trying to convince everyone that they’re right and the other guy is the cause of all the problems. But I’m not playing that game. People who are playing that game in politics, I don’t see how they sleep at night. Their stomachs must be turning all the time. I’ll just sit here and sew.”

And sew she has, completing an impressive body of work.

All-white Torah mantles that she created have been used for the High Holy Days at Beth Am for the past nine years. “I had them dry-cleaned because someone always kisses it with bright red lipstick, and I was like, ‘Why would you do that?’ ”

She also helps Beth Am transform the ark, so “for 10 days once a year, you open it and it’s all white. It just says, ‘OK, the High Holidays are different from the rest of the year.’ ”

Peretz spoke passionately and at length about the Gwoździec Synagogue, a 17th-century building that was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. The synagogue’s ceiling, painted with elaborate zodiac figures, has been painstakingly reconstructed for the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where Peretz saw it in March 2016. On the main level of her house, Peretz has devoted a wall to research about the synagogue, as background for a book of children’s stories she is writing, inspired by the animal figures painted onto its ceiling.

In one story, the animals’ energy escapes from the ceiling at night and cavorts around before returning to different bodies than the ones they started in. For instance, the lion’s energy enters a rabbit’s body, enabling the lion to learn what being a rabbit is like. It’s a story that teaches empathy, a value in line with Peretz’s attitude toward life.

“The other person is just like you but having a different life experience. The bum on the street isn’t just a bum on the street —  he’s another holy being who’s having an experience, and you’re no better or worse than he is,” she said. “If you’re a Republican in this life, you’ll be a Democrat in the next life, so let’s get this solved, people.”

With a passion for building objects that reflect Jewish tradition and values, it’s no surprise that Peretz’s favorite Jewish holiday or observance is Sukkot.

“You get to build and decorate the structure any way you want to within certain boundaries, and I like pushing the boundaries,” she said, describing her use of palm leaf fabric for the sukkah. “Halachically, I’m probably pushing it, but I’m a Conservative Jew; there’s a multitude of ways I get to express myself and be creative with how I want to reinvent the Jewish holidays.”

Peretz also noted that her conversion brought her husband back to Jewish practice in a significant way.

“Now he’s more observant than I am,” she said. “Go figure.”

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