Susan Duhan Felix in the first episode of “Art Beat,” a series Felix hosted on Berkeley public television. (Screenshot/Berkeley Community Media)
Susan Duhan Felix in the first episode of “Art Beat,” a series Felix hosted on Berkeley public television. (Screenshot/Berkeley Community Media)

Ceramicist, ‘welcomer’ and klezmer ‘impresario’ Susan Felix dies at 85

There was a time in the East Bay Jewish community when any event featuring music or Jewish dance would inevitably include the presence of a sprightly woman of a certain age who was always the first one on her feet. Her energy was so infectious, it wasn’t long before nearly everyone got up to join her.

Susan Duhan Felix, ritual Judaica creator, renowned ceramicist and dance lover, died at her Berkeley home on Feb. 4 at age 85.

Jewish dance leader Bruce Bierman called Felix “the welcomer,” no matter where she was. When Saul’s Deli in Berkeley hosted klezmer nights, she could often be found at a table holding court with an assortment of her friends of all ages. “She was the impresario of our local klezmer scene. She got [people] to come support whatever musical events were happening,” he said. “There’s no one else like her.”

Felix was a regular at the Berkeley Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev,  where two years ago she shared her diagnosis in an open letter to the community, asking people to “honor this time in my life with dance, song and reverence for the great mystery. … when I leave this Earth, I will leave with a full heart and spirit.” 

Born in Queens, New York, on July 23, 1937, Felix was the eldest of four children. She was greatly inspired by an aunt who was an artist, even though her parents tried to dissuade her from that path.

Felix was also a poetry lover, attending many readings with her sister as a teenager. Later, at Queens College, she read the work of Morton Felix for the first time in the college poetry magazine. She fell in love with his poetry, but was afraid to meet him because of his almost mythical literary status on campus. But once they were introduced, they immediately fell in love. She was 19 and he was 22 when they married, and their daughter Lisa was born soon after. The couple was together 54 years before Morton passed away in 2012.

Felix attended the University of Connecticut, getting her master’s degree in poetry. In 1959, the Felixes helped found the Wormwood Review, a highly regarded poetry and literary magazine that started back East and later moved to Stockton. It was around for 40 years, with contributors including Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso and e.e. cummings.

Felix began turning her artistic eye toward ceramics when she took a class at the Rhode Island School of Design. After three years, she had developed a body of work and her husband entered one of her pieces in a regional ceramics competition. She won first prize. He took great pride in her artistic endeavors and helped with child care so she could pursue her art.

During that time her lifelong fascination with the creation of Jewish ritual objects started when a local rabbi asked if she could make a menorah. Felix later became known for her menorahs and Kiddush cups, in particular.

In 1967, her husband got a job offer in the Bay Area and the couple stayed at a friend’s home in Berkeley. Although neither were into drugs, Felix said she was a hippie at heart and instantly felt at home.

She left her mark on Berkeley in numerous ways, working on affordable housing issues for more than two decades and serving as the city’s arts ambassador in a position created specifically for her by former Mayor Tom Bates.

In 1979, she founded the Jewish Arts Community of the Bay and served as its executive director from 1989 to 1991. She had a solo show in 1986 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, which today has one of her pieces in its permanent collection.

It was also in the 1980s when she first experimented with a technique called pit firing, the original method for baking clay objects that dates back some 30,000 years, where the coloring or ornamentation is left to chance.

Faith and art have the same root word in Hebrew … You have to have trust in the process.

“Faith and art have the same root word in Hebrew,” Felix told J. in 2017. “With pit firing, you don’t know exactly how it will turn out. You have to have trust in the process.”

Her Judaica is in numerous museums, including the Skirball in Los Angeles and the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia, while her pit-fired wall pieces with Hebrew and/or Arabic calligraphy hang in many local Jewish institutions, including Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

Over the years she won many accolades in Berkeley and even one in the state Assembly, which passed a 1987 resolution commending her artistic talents and community leadership. In 1989, the city of Berkeley declared March 16 Susan D. Felix Day, and 30 years later bestowed a lifetime achievement award.

Felix continued to create well into her 80s. In 2017, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley marked the 50th anniversary of Felix’s arrival in Berkeley with a solo retrospective show, and in 2018, she became a television host on “East Bay Art Beat,” a monthly public access show.

Felix is survived by daughter Lisa Smartt and granddaughter Eliana Derr, companion Peter Neufeld, sister Nancy Travis (Phillip), and sisters-in-law Deirdre Arima and Miriam Duhan. Donations in her memory can be made to Chochmat HaLev.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."