Melissa Stern

Deflated, 2021; clay, wood, paint, oil stick, 43 x 18 x 17 inches

Stern: A Collage of Cultures

My father’s beloved grandmother was named Bella Coen. She was born in Genoa and immigrated to Philadelphia in the late 19th Century, having already married my paternal great grandfather in Genoa. I know nothing about him and have no idea how the two met. My father adored Nonna Bella and spent a great deal of time at her house—eating. Seriously. His tales of eating his grandmother’s Italian Jewish food make me salivate as I type this. His own home was turbulent, and Nonna Bella’s house was warm and welcoming. He would go there almost every day and his Nonna would feed him and speak Italian and hug and kiss him, making up for what was described to me as a chillier home life.


My father wanted to name me Bella in honor of his grandmother. But it was the 1950’s and my mother wasn’t keen on a name that was quite so immigrant. Somehow they got from “Bella” to “Melissa,” which is Greek. Go figure.


When I was four or five my father decided to teach me Italian. I learned the phrases Come ti chiami and Mi chiamo Melissa. I could ask if someone was hungry and answer Si!. I could count to ten and knew 20, 30, 40, 50 and so on. I knew the words for hat, shoes, dress, socks, and coat, different kinds of food, and the basic animals. Sadly, because my father didn’t really know how to teach a foreign language to a child, that’s where it stopped. He and my mother spoke Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about. (Though I very quickly understood that kinder meant child.)


Years later, as we were walking home from the car mechanic after leaving his beloved but doomed Fiat for yet another repair, my father explained to me that Christopher Columbus was Jewish and that everyone in Genoa knew it and in fact every real Italian person knew that he was Jewish. (This was confirmed to me decades later when an Italian friend told me that, yes, in fact they were taught in elementary school that Columbus was Jewish.) This led into a deep historical conversation about the Inquisition and the history of the Jews in Italy. I grew up knowing that Italy was, on the whole, pretty good to the Jews. That is, relative to how they were treated in the rest of Europe. My father was proud of how good the Italians were to the Jews and could recount the story of every Italian who hid Jews during World War II. Less was said about those who collaborated with the Nazis.


At Passover we always had a meal that mixed in Italian Jewish recipes. Why eat brisket if you could instead feast upon chicken cooked in olives, capers, and apricots? Eggplant, spinach, pine nuts, and lemons— these were ingredients not seen on the tables of Eastern European Jews. I continue the tradition, now reaching farther afield and integrating recipes from the Jews of India and Morocco into our Passover meals. And, yes, you can come to Seder next year.


My mother’s family were a gaggle of gloomy Russians. My mother would say, “They had a lot of reasons to be depressed.” The warm ray of love from my great grandmother certainly infused my father’s life. And I am a mélange of it all. Perhaps it’s this familial history of collaging cultures that has influenced my work as an artist. Putting disparate things together to make a new and unexpected visual “flavor.” Maybe that’s a stretch. As the great sage Popeye would say, “ I yam what I yam.” 


Suburbs, 2019; found objects, fabric, oil paint, wood, 34 x 36 x 6 inches

Self Portrait, 2019, oil stick on wood, 17 x 13 inches; Me With Makeup, 2020, oilstick on paper, 24 x 18 inches

Melissa Stern