Miniature details give giant lift to dollhouse

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An incredibly elaborate dollhouse filled with miniature Judaica is wowing residents at Danville's Home for Jewish Parents.

"There are even matzah balls in the soup," exclaimed Harriet Finck, the Home's development director. "Little matzah balls in the soup!"

There's also a miniature rabbi, a seder plate smaller than a dime and a teensy menorah.

"The amount of detail is amazing," Finck said. "People are drawn to it, and they walk all around it to see all the detail. Then they come back and look at it again.

"We have to keep it behind Plexiglas or people would want to reach in and touch things."

The dollhouse, which cost about $14,000 to build and decorate, is on exhibit in the main lobby of the assisted-living area. The Home moved from Oakland to Danville in early August.

Claire and Norman Fox of Orinda donated the dollhouse to the Home. Wanting to make a donation that was both unique and grand, they went to longtime friend Barbara Borsuk of Piedmont and commissioned her to construct it.

Borsuk, who is 77, has built five such houses in the past 20 years, but this was by far her most elaborate and Jewish-oriented effort. "It took me a year to just find the [miniature] rabbi," she said.

The finished product stands almost 4 feet tall and its base is about 5 feet by 5 feet. Tabbed "Fox Manor" in honor of the donors, the house has three floors and 11 rooms. It is fully electrified.

"To me, if you don't electrify it, it's not a dollhouse," said Borsuk, who has lived in Piedmont for 50 years and is a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland.

Of course, it wouldn't be a home without people in it — and there are 15 of them scattered either inside or out, all dressed in Victorian-era clothing. The grandfather in the study is hoisting a kiddush cup.

To create two small rugs, Borsuk commissioned an artist in New York to do the sketches on fabric, and then sent the fabric to Haiti where an expert in the craft of "pettypoint" took over.

The "large" rug, the size of a 3-by-5 index card, features a scene of ancient Jerusalem with palm trees and stone buildings done mostly with blue and green yarn. The other rug, the size of a business card, shows a dove with an olive twig in its mouth with the words "Peace" and "Shalom" stitched into the fabric.

"Pettypoint is like needlepoint," Borsuk explained. "The rugs had to be bound, just like real carpets. I had to create both in my mind, and they are very, very special to me."

The rugs are small enough, but there is even more detailed work: the mezuzah on the front door measures a scant 3 or 4 millimeters, Borsuk estimated. Pictures and paintings — some Judaic — inside the home measure 1 inch by 1 inch.

In the dining room, the table is set for a Passover seder, with a seder plate and a matzah cover and "everything else you eat at Passover time" — including chicken soup with matzah balls.

"All the food was ordered by me through a certain manufacturer of miniatures, the only one that does Jewish food," Borsuk said. "You have to do all kinds of research and look at tons of miniatures magazines to find all the things you want.

"And I did nothing on the Internet. I did it all with the soles of my shoes — the old-fashioned way. I do a lot of things the hard way. I don't even like to use a calculator."

Some other notables about the house include two fireplaces that light up, a working grandfather clock in the study and an old phonograph that plays music when cranked. There are also four stained-glass windows.

Borsuk didn't actually build the house herself, though she conceptionalized it entirely. She hired "subcontractors" to do the carpentry, electricity and much of the decorating.

"But every inch of it," she said, "I told them what to do."

The dollhouse is one of several pieces of artwork that decorate the Home. One is an abstract sculpture by artist Neil Goodman designed specifically for the Home's main lobby. It consists of 30 cast-bronze figures, each an abstraction of a Jewish symbol or Hebrew letter.

There is also a fine assortment of Judaica, much of it from overseas, from the Ruth and Max Eis Collection, which was donated to the Home. Highlighting the collection are three stained-glass windows rescued from Eastern Europe after World War II.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.