By all outward appearances, Naomi Wilzig, who died in her sleep Tuesday at her Miami Beach home at 80, was your quintessential Jewish grandmother.
Doting on family, cultured and a benefactor of Jewish causes, Wilzig was the daughter of H. Jerome Sisselman, dubbed the “King of the Meadowlands” for his vast realty empire, and the widow of Siggi Wilzig, a Holocaust survivor who made his fortune in banking in New Jersey.
About five years ago, Wilzig, who was a founder of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and a member of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, donated a restored European Torah scroll to Chabad in South Beach.
“She is very pious,” said the South Beach Chabad rabbi upon receiving her gift of the Torah in 2009.
Then you would meet her at one of the many social events she attended, perhaps at her recent 80th birthday party that she celebrated in grand style on the Beach in December, and peer closer at the jewelry she wore — always with exceedingly good taste, mind you.
There it was: a penis hanging around her neck. Erect, naturally.
“We in America get uptight at the thought of looking at a penis, particularly an erect penis,” she said, laughing in a 2002 Miami Herald profile, three years before she opened what would become her career legacy: The World Erotic Art Museum at 1205 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach. Her collection rivals Paris’ Musée de l’Erotisme, Berlin’s Beate Uhse Erotikmuseumand New York’s Museum of Sex.
Wilzig laughed easily. But she was serious about her museum. If wearing a necklace of charms featuring a masturbating frog and a spread-eagle nymph helped get the point across, well, so be it.
“At this point in my life, I’m a crusader to get John Q. Public to accept that erotic art is out there. We accept violence, but we go crazy over the idea of a nude body,” she said in the Herald story.
In 2005, a little over a decade after her life turned from “housewife” to “erotic art collector,” Wilzig achieved her dream: a permanent home for her 4,000-piece collection. She housed it all in a 12,000-square-foot space on Washington Avenue, smack dab in the middle of nightclubs and restaurants, in South Beach, where bared flesh is as natural as the sun in the morning.
Wilzig, an author of five books that cataloged her collection, was product of an Orthodox Jersey family. “A throttling environment where so many things were said ‘no’ to,” she would say.
The museum’s earliest pieces, oil lamps with carvings of entwined bodies, dated to 100 B.C. These artifacts paired well with the Art Deco-era watercolor nudes.
The impetus? Her eldest son Ivan, who asked his mother to pick him up some art for his New York apartment in the early 1990s. He wanted a “conversation piece,” and he got one.
Little did she know that the trinket she picked up was sexual in nature.
“She didn’t know what it was, and I wasn’t expecting her to know what erotic art was when she was almost 60,” Ivan Wilzig said. “I wasn’t expecting to have a conversation about sex with my mother. I tried to diplomatically tell her, ‘Well, it’s sexual art, but it’s not pornography, it’s … taboo and has historical connotations.’
“I gave her this whole story and said, ‘Now you know what it is?’ She said, ‘No!’”
She would quickly become an expert. She traveled the world to collect pieces that traced every culture.
“She was an extraordinary woman, moved totally to her own tune,” said friend Charlie Cinnamon, her press agent. “Her mission seemed to be all about her children and to do art and inform the world how we can live freely and happily.”
Wilzig is survived by her children Ivan and Alan Wilzig, and Sherry Izak; grandchildren Jonathan, Jesse, Siggi and Winni; and sister Rachel Araten. Services will be held Thursday in New Jersey.
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