Growing up, Bella Scharf saw her father, Israel, fashioning intricate works in wood. It was his carpentry ability that helped save his life during the Holocaust and support his family after he came to the United States, but he had no intention of sharing the skill with his daughter. “He was scared I’d hurt myself on his jigsaw,” Scharf explained. “I was only allowed to observe.”
In the last months of his life, she finally prevailed on her father to teach her how to do his specialty — marquetry, intricate decorative work with inlaid wood of different shades.
Her husband, Simon Zelingher, had told her, “Hurry up, or you’ll regret it,” Scharf recalled. “I was persistent and determined, and my father finally agreed. I learned pretty quickly, and he was proud of me.”
Though he did still worry that she’d hurt herself. Only after his death in 2006 did Scharf get a router of her own, which she works with in the basement of her home in Marlboro. “I keep my tools and materials down there — for shalom bayit, peace in the home,” she said with a laugh.
Marquetry, which emerged in the 15th century, was enormously popular during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods of the early- to mid-20th century, and has somewhat faded from view. But Scharf would like to raise awareness and appreciation of the technique.
Materials are becoming more pricey, but off-cuts from manufacturing — for example, of kitchen cabinets — can be ordered on-line. Using only stained woods, nothing painted or dyed, she makes Judaica items like tzedaka boxes, clocks, and picture frames inscribed with Hebrew, in addition to regular decorative items. Most she makes for her family or friends, but she is willing to sell some items, which can be seen on her website, BellaMarquetry.com.
The creativity keeps alive the connection with her father. “He was very talented,” she said. Israel Scharf grew up in Poland, and as a child worked in the family’s furniture business. When World War II broke out, while most of his family members were killed in concentration camps, he landed in labor camps, where his woodworking ability kept him from death. At one point, he was spared because he was working on a dollhouse for the camp commandant’s daughter.
After the war, staying in a displaced persons’ camp, he organized an ORT vocational school and taught carpentry. Scharf’s mother, who was also from Poland and survived the war in Siberia, was a dressmaker and taught sewing in the school.
They settled in Israel, where Bella and her brother were born. The family moved to the United States when she was nine, in 1957. Her father continued his woodworking, and examples of his work can still be seen in synagogues in New York and Florida.
For Scharf, learning a new skill has been a challenge she relishes. As a child in Brooklyn, without the money to buy lots of new clothes, she taught herself to make her own. “I had clothes that were different from other people’s; I was in control and I could do my own thing,” she said. She studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and became design director for a yarn company. While there, she published two popular craft books, Illustrated Patchwork Crochet and Butterick’s Fast & Easy Needlecrafts.
She switched gears in the early 1980s; using her math abilities, she learned computer programming. It wasn’t a total contrast. “What I’d been doing wasn’t pure art,” she said; “it was applied art and involved a lot of technical skill.” She enjoyed the computer world immensely. “It was so fascinating. The more technical it was, the more I loved it.” She went on to handle business systems for Johnson & Johnson for 16 years.
Scharf, who is Shabbat observant, is a member of the Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan and also supports and attends services at Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro.
She retired seven years ago, and her husband, a former engineer with AT&T, retired in 2012. Since then they have been doing a lot of traveling. Her articles about their visits to China and to Gibraltar have appeared in NJ Jewish News.
But with her passion for marquetry, she also relishes staying put at home. And she is learning a new skill — mosaic done with ceramic tiles. This time she’s learning from YouTube videos. “I’m never bored,” she declared.