Qanta A. Ahmed
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The tree house that Leslie Sacks built

Remembering a Jewish art lover who championed the rights of Muslim women
Leslie Sacks first saw Anselm Kiefer's Jungfrau at an exhibit in Tel Aviv Art. For the remaining time Sacks had to live, the painting  was his sanctuary. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Leslie Sacks first saw Anselm Kiefer's Jungfrau at an exhibit in Tel Aviv Art. For the remaining time Sacks had to live, the painting was his sanctuary. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Jungfrau, 2011, by Anselm Kiefer

We collided, like the best things do, in New York City. The November wind hurried me to dinner. Inside, Trattorria Dela Ratta glowed, festive with bonhomie.

Leslie anchored a circular table centered in the room. He greeted me with his broad, uncomplicated smile. Either side, he was flanked by two beauties- one Gina, his wife, the other, Caron, his sister. From the beginning, Leslie had included me into his fold. We would never again separate.

Inclusion, and the generosity underpinning it, was Leslie’s hallmark. It was the only way Leslie knew how to be. From his beginnings Leslie pursued social justice. As an undergraduate at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand Leslie had become a human rights activist, both fighting Apartheid and supporting his community, Johannesburg’s Jewry.

By the time we met decades later, his sense of justice was keenly moved by the plight of the Muslim woman. Such was his feeling that he devoted the final years of his life to building Women’s Voices Now a not-for-profit social action organization promoting freedom of expression for women through film.

Over the years, we shared long conversations about Muslim women, informed by his hopes and his wide reading. That a Jewish man held such regard for Muslim women moved me deeply. His motives were clear – for peace to ever to come to the Middle East, Leslie believed it would be women, not men, who would be pivotal change-makers – Muslim women included. Women, Leslie believed, especially Muslim women, needed empowerment and a true voice. To these ideals he remained committed.

In our too short time, I discovered Leslie’s beliefs to be more than mere words. His beliefs entailed action, whether financing major philanthropic efforts, publishing opinions in “Strength and Tolerance” or supporting filmmakers from as far away as Afghanistan and Iran.

Like all precious things, our time was to be finite. And so I came to be peering from a balcony on North Doheny Drive. Gray skies cosseted my sorrow. The California sun had gone far away. In the distance, the Beverly Hills were made strangely bleak.

Glancing in the mirror confirmed my somber exterior matched my grave interior. Pulling the cuff straight on my black dress, I stepped into my black shoes. I was both ready and unready.

Downstairs, there was no traffic. Auden’s clocks had indeed stopped. Noting my sorrow, the driver maintained our silence. Only the rolling tires punctured the stillness. Lowering the window, I studied the ficus trees lining the boulevard. Swelling softly with sorrow, they swayed mournfully in the Angelino afternoon.

We reached the Drive. Apprehensive to leave the shelter of the cab, I waited with the driver for the hour to strike. Then it was time. Stepping over the threshold, I joined others to meet our sorrow. We moved in silence towards the garden, its green gravity beckoning us inwards.

At our center lay the green-glassed tree house, Leslie’s last act. The centripetal force drawing us near was beauty. Leslie’s final desire had been the construction of a special space for reflection surrounding a beloved painting.

(Photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Leslie had seen the painting in the last year of his life. He had been in Israel with his wife and sister. A family friend had taken him to the exhibition where, for a few enchanted hours, he had forgotten his pain. Caught in its magic and meaning, Leslie was unable to part from it. Thus captivated, he had brought the painting home to Brentwood. Between treatments and doctors, Leslie devoted his last energies to envisioning the sanctuary for the Anselm Kiefer painting that spoke such truth to him. While I couldn’t see it from where I now walked, within the glass building, “Jungfrau” was now suspended in the copse of trees at the end of his garden. This was Leslie’s Tree House.

And then, the California clouds parted, ushering in the October sun. A golden light bathed the scene, transporting me abruptly to Israel. In the green of the grass, the gold of the sun, the gleam of the glass, echoes of the gardens of Yad Vashem called only to me.

At Yad Vashem (Photo: Qanta Ahmed)

These first moments of commemorating Leslie concentrated my thoughts towards the sacred, yet it would be some hours before I would learn the painting inside was inspired by memories of the Holocaust. The Tree House, completed only the night before, already pulsed with an energy rich in meaning and memory.

I joined the lines of mourners, some yarmulke-ed, others bareheaded. Sunglasses concealed our sorrows. From all coasts and many continents, we arrived in pairs, or groups, or often, as is the case in bereavement, abruptly uprooted to here alone. Each of us found our place. We fell silent as our work of listening began.

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(Photo: Qanta Ahmed)

My tears arrived unbidden. Through the salty film that we know to be love, I stared at the tree house. It spanned the modern and the primal. The scene was suffused with all things Israeli, all things Jewish. I was grateful for my recognition, soothed to have known both Israel and her tribes.

Overhead, the live oak scattered acorns. Hurtling in noisy handfuls, with little regard for ceremony or moment, they startled us from our sadness. Immediately we knew, it was cantankerous Leslie, grinning from above as he lightening our spirits in the most delightful way.

It was my turn to speak. I carried with me the words of a beloved sister. I stood facing the mourners, in front of the Tree House. Holding Caron’s speech, I could feel Leslie’s neshama. Pausing to settle my tears, my hands trembled, just as Caron’s had when she wrote these words, days earlier, in Israel.

As I began to form her words, Caron’s voice began to sound in my person. Losing sight of the mourners, I sensed only the tree house. Within the dappled shade, the building inhaled, then exhaled, animate, while I had become a vessel. Caron’s sentiment, meeting Leslie’s neshama, was made a powerful spirit. Throughout, my companion acorns fell constantly, easing the taut strictures of my loss.

Behind, shade sheltered the painting. A tenderness guarded our grief. The glasshouse became a divine hand, protecting Leslie’s final desire. Careful not to crush the fragile quarry nestling within its palm, the tree house curved around the powerful beauty we feel yet not understand.

Under these canopies both divine and deciduous, we sheltered in our tears. Anchored by our sorrows, for whole hours we floated in the powerful currents of Leslie’s presence. His energy was near, surging with radiance, fleeting as a butterfly, yet resolute in the California breeze rustling through its perfect, Godly beauty.

Finally, the crucible to all our pain faced us. Gina, Leslie’s life love and partner stood to her small feet. She gathered her might into her frame. Touching Leslie’s image, she gained strength. We abandoned breathing as we beheld her courage. Her quiet voice carried to the ends of the garden. I was returned to sixteenth century India.

(Photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The portrait of Leslie, Gina’s tiny but strong figure, and the temple-sanctum-tree house restored a regal love to my memory. Dimensions and latitudes away, another husband had enshrined such love for his wife. In life, Leslie’s love for Gina had been epic. In death, it had expanded. Such had been Shah Jahan’s mourning for Mumtaz, as he ordered the Taj Mahal built. The Tree House and the tiny figure echoed with a love as grand. Leslie’s final earthly gesture of love to Gina, and hers to him, stood suddenly clear. Like their love, the Tree House was transparent, yet profoundly regal. Leslie had indeed crowned Gina his Jewish Queen and the Tree House would be their Taj.

After the ceremony, I entered the Tree House. Ensnared in the deck by my heels, I slipped them off, entering the sanctum stocking-footed. Carrying my shoes, I was again a Mosque-goer. Cool limestone greeted my feet. I was in religious space. Around me, Jewish men in satin kippas moved here and there, admiring sometimes the painting, sometimes the view. As Leslie perpetually did so in life, now, so recently returned to the Source, his memory was already uniting all God’s children.

From inside, I could see Leslie’s childhood Africa. A young Caron scampered close behind as he climbed the tree. Below, I found branches and leaves; to my left and right, sheltering shade. And far beneath, I spied the clearing where Leslie had married his Gina.

This was The Maker’s perspective. Beholding the distance between where they had originated and where they were headed, I was caught in a web of suspension, ascent, transcendence. Until the distant day when their spirits are spirit united, Leslie’s neshama can nest in this intermediary location, half way between God and the woman He molded as his earthbound Angel. The placement was perfect: midway, between The Source above and the Earth below, this, their station until the World to Come.

Late that evening, I found myself looking forward to seeing this place in the rain, or amid branches bared of leaves. But because it rests in California, Leslie’s tree house will always enjoy the soft murmur of breeze through leaves, fitting because when we remember Leslie we think of Africa and Israel. Like his life-affirming origins, the tree house will never be without life and bloom.

When all the guests had gone, I returned to the house. Looking out to the garden, seamless, the Tree house was married into the nature enfolding it. Sunrays stretched long stripes across the lawn, radiating from the numinous sanctuary. At nightfall, under the live oak, Leslie’s brother was surrounded by family menfolk. Their masculine laughter encroached like a moonlit tide, bathing away our sorrow. It was as Leslie would have wished.

That day, many spoke of Leslie the collector. As a child he had collected matchboxes and snakes, as a man, art and artifact. Always, he collected without motive for profit, but for instead for nurturing and sharing joy. Muddling through that sad afternoon, we realized we had assembled in Leslie’s most precious collection: man and woman, child and elder, friend and family, Muslim, Christian and Jew. Some of us were his valued antiques- glowing with the burnished patina baked in his radiance while others of us, his newer treasures, sparkled with our shy and bright newness. Irrespective, all of us whether here in our body or instead in our spirit, were now connected by our kind and loving curator -Leslie.

Soon after, Leslie’s collection dispersed. Across the globe we have scattered. While his nidus remains in Los Angeles and Ra’anana, others have returned here to New York or to London, Toronto, Johannesburg and many other places I am yet to learn. Wherever we are, of one thing I am sure: we each remain ensconced in our memories of Leslie. It is a Lion Heart we have known.

The days turn to weeks, and the weeks to months. I have dreamt of him twice, hearing his voice calling ‘Gina!’ It’s a sound all of us knew. Following the familiar South African boom, I search for him in my dreams but, for now, he eludes me. Instead, I am soothed by a scene of his great loves.

It is windswept Savannah. The African sun is high. I know it to be winter. Each heart he has loved so deeply, appear to me in my reverie. Across the veldt, two lionesses stare at the vanishing point. Regal, battle-worn, Sphinx-like, they rest on the plains. They look not at each other but instead to the empty horizon. Neither do they follow their gaze, nor do they leave their spot. Shade does not shield these brave hearts. Unblinking, they squint into the noon light, exposed for all to see. These lionesses, one a wife, the other a sister, remain dignified, proud. Yet under their glossy coats, lives a private tenderness forever swelling their hearts. They spill with the loving of a special lion, a lion called Leslie. He is a true lion, their silence speaks to me, a lion of Judah.

It’s the richest knowledge one can possess, the one gained through the purity of loss. Unwillingly, I am enriched by Leslie – too much, too soon, my friend. But as I bid him fare thee well, in this life until the next, his lion hearts, Gina and Caron, flank me, just as they did that first night in New York. They have enfolded me into his momentous, Jewish pack.

It’s a magical world this Maker bequeaths us, I can’t help thinking, where, while enchanted trees may grow in Brooklyn, in Brentwood, it is Jerusalem that now nestles gently in the embrace of a live oak tree.

A primary sketch for the Tree House, by architect Janek Dombrowa (Image courtesy Janek Dombrowa)
Sketch for the Tree House, by architect Janek Dombrowa (Image courtesy Janek Dombrowa)
Building the Tree House (Image courtesy of Janek Dombrowa)
Building the Tree House (Image courtesy of Janek Dombrowa)
Delivering the painting (Image courtesy of Janek Dombrowa)


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(Photo: Qanta Ahmed)
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(Photo: Qanta Ahmed)


About the Author
Qanta Ahmed, MD, is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a life member, Council on Foreign Relations and an Honorary Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom'