Jewish and East Asian culture don’t generally receive mention in the same breath, with two distinct cultural and geographical histories. And yet, there’s always an exception to rules.
That is Marjie Du Berchin in a nutshell, a 73-year-old resident of San Diego’s Del Sur community who has spent a lifetime cutting against the grain. Du Berchin spent a decades-long career as a successful estate planning attorney based in San Diego’s North County. But making textiles and jewelry has always been her first love, on par with her interest and self-described “affinity for Asia,” with the two interests colliding in the form of her artistic output.
Born and raised in West Los Angeles as the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Du Berchin’s fashion and jewelry has an East Asian flair, inspired by the years she spent traveling and teaching English abroad in Japan during the 1960s while a college student studying fine arts with a focus on textiles at California State University-Northridge. In a sense, sojourning to that area of the world — as opposed to Europe, where most of her friends went after graduating from high school – was a version of doing things differently and seeing the world from a different lens for Du Berchin.
“I was one of those contrary kids where I decided I should go the other way and went to East Asia,” says Du Berchin.
That journey to that area of the world during that point of time in history also took her to Southeast Asia and in particular, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, both at the apex of the Vietnam War. Du Berchin says she had a sense of youthful “invincibility” at the time to explain her lack of fear, though seeing what she saw made her cynical about humanity and its cruelty.
“It was horrible. Seeing peasants running across the border with their dead baby wrapped in plastic because they didn’t even have a place or time to bury the child,” says Du Berchin. “You hear the phrase ‘War is hell,’ but you can’t really even begin to comprehend what that means until you hear peoples’ stories and see its consequences firsthand.”
Though she would proceed to marry and for a short period of time become a housewife, Du Berchin would eventually divorce and go to a law school at night while also holding down a second job: that of a single mother to her daughter, Faithe. Actually, Du Berchin also had other part-time jobs during this point in her life, as well, three to be precise.
“So, I go to my three part-time jobs and law school and I’m the last to pick Faithe up at night from day care many times,” explained Du Berchin. “I come there and she’s got her fingers on the wire fences and her little nose is sticking through the thing. And I start to cry because she was paying the price of all of this.”
Upon completion of her non-traditional law school experience – in which she finished 12th in her class – Du Berchin worked as a lawyer for a couple years at General Atomics in La Jolla in the late-1970s. She then proceeded to open her own legal practice, which she managed and owned until her retirement about a decade and a half ago.
During her time as a lawyer, Du Berchin sat on the Board for Temple Solel for seven years, helping the synagogue to grow. Though not religiously Jewish and nor were her parents – with her dad being a Holocaust survivor – Du Berchin felt it was important for the Cardiff-and Encinitas-area to have a synagogue in place as a social center for the reform Jewish community in that neck of the woods.
“I didn’t want to go to it, I wanted it to be there,” explained Du Berchin.
She also noted that she was particularly proud of getting an organization called Visiting Nurses off the ground during her years spent as a lawyer. As a child of parents who had children later in their lives, Du Berchin says she had developed a soft spot for the elderly and felt it was important that they have the nursing and broader community support.
Though the organization lasted for several years, it ceases to exist today. Visiting Nurses was essentially a non-profit in which nurses made home visits to the lower-income elderly so that they could age in place, as opposed to as an assisted living facility or other elderly care center.
“They were the only ones who stood as a bulwark between a poor senior and getting shipped off to a nursing home,” says Du Berchin.
Today, though not a regular synagogue-goer, Du Berchin maintains her sense of Jewish identity by going to Israel frequently and studying the cultural history of the Jewish people.
And, now retired and with more time on her hands, Du Berchin has a full studio at her new Del Sur home dedicated to her textiles and jewelry art-making. Generally speaking, going above and beyond her art, Du Berchin says she identifies herself as a “maker.” That includes making food, a garden, her art and other things, a trait Du Berchin says she inherited from her father.
“I think of myself as a maker and when you are a maker it’s the process of creating and making that’s interesting. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a garden that you’re making or setting the table or making food or clothing,” says Du Berchin. “It’s a mindset and there’s different kind of makers: there’s inventive makers and there’s aesthetic makers. I think of myself as an aesthetic maker, that the picture which you look at, whether it’s a piece of clothing or a table you’re setting, should have some art to it to try to inject beauty into your life and the viewer’s life as a gift.”
That mentality, says Du Berchin, came from her many trips to Japan, a country with few natural resources which she says makes the most beautiful and aesthetic objects and gardens. Du Berchin has traveled to Japan now upwards of 30 times, also going to Hong Kong nine times, Israel four times and China eight times. In total, she has visited some 115 countries, by her count.
So, while Du Berchin may be getting older, she maintained that her motto remains, “If not now, when?” It’s an ethos which has prevailed throughout her liveliest of livelihoods, which at times has bucked tradition, but has remained rooted in various degrees of Judaism.