Jewish grandmothers don’t usually wear penis necklaces or hang signs announcing “Buying Erotica” while antique shopping. But, Naomi Wilzig, who died in her sleep on Tuesday at 80, was anything but your typical bubbe. Wilzig was the founder of the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach, Florida, the largest privately-held erotic art collection in North America.
This formerly Orthodox woman’s unorthodox erotic art collecting began in the 1990s when her son asked her to bring back a conversation piece from a European trip. He rejected her initial selection, but as a good Jewish mother she kept trying. Thanks to her persistence and his finicky tastes, Wilzig ended up amassing more than 4,000 pieces of erotic art.
When not art shopping wearing a sign — “Because they don’t put out the good stuff,” she explained — Wilzig was active in Jewish organizations such as the Federation and Hadassah. A generous benefactor, she was a founder of Hadassah Hospital and for her 75th birthday, she donated a restored European Torah to Chabad in South Beach in memory of her late husband. Upon accepting the donation, Rabbi Shraga Mann described Wilzig as “very pious with a history of philanthropy before she got into that.”
I met Wilzig when she conducted private tours of the museum. At the time of her death, she and I were arranging for my Hadassah chapter to visit the museum next month. She was especially pleased to be hosting a group of fellow Hadassah members, and was delighted when I told her that I would write about the tour for the Forward..“It’s about time,” she said.
Others have described Wilzig as elegant, stately, demure, and quick to laugh. What I remember most was her ability to take the taboo out of the topic of sex. In planning our forthcoming tour, I asked if photos could be taken. “Sure,” she said, “Just don’t show any genital penetration. Now, will this be a fund raiser? Because we charge less if it is.” I marveled at her ability to switch effortlessly from intercourse to admission fees using the same tone of voice. “Don’t be embarrassed to be here,” was her opening line when she met group tours. “Sex is how everyone got here. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” During the tours her relaxed demeanor made visitors feel like a beloved aunt was showing off her favorite tszoktas rather than like they were peeping at porn.
Before becoming a purchaser of the prurient, Wilzig had been living the staid life of a banker’s wife. The daughter of the “King of the Meadowlands” H. Jerome Sisselman, Wilzig was raised in a New Jersey Sabbath-observant, kosher-keeping, mikvah-going home with five siblings. She told the Miami Herald that her Orthodox Jewish upbringing was “a throttling environment where so many things were said ‘no’ to.”
She married Siggi Wilzig, a Holocaust survivor and oil and banking magnate, when she was 18. Later, her husband was less than pleased with her new-found hobby of collecting erotic art and would periodically demand that she stop. She would acquiesce – temporarily – but could not be kept away for long. She did wait two years after his death, however, to open the museum.
The World Erotic Art Museum is regarded as a gem of Miami Beach. When it opened in 2005, the Miami Herald headline proclaimed, “Museum a Climax to Arts Journey.” Located on a second floor in a building in the heart of South Beach, the 12,000-square-foot institution exhibits the artwork by period and place, such as Biblical, Asian, Mexican, Art Nouveau, and Contemporary. The museum’s Jewish origin is evident when you step off the elevator and spot a mezuzah. Wilzig claimed one metal sculpture of a kneeling nude looked to her like a Kiddush cup.
The museum’s first anniversary featured a party with 1950s cheesecake model Bunny Yeager, described by the Herald as “Bringing the Sexy Back to Miami.” By the third year they were spotlighting the world of drag queens. Wilzig was especially proud of the academic bent the organization took in recent years. In 2008, the museum hosted author appearances to discuss “Sensuality in Romance Novels,” and offered a special exhibit, “Gay Art: From Ancient to Modern.” Human sexuality professors routinely bring their college students and sex therapists to view the collection as part of their professional training.
Wilzig is survived by her children Ivan Wilzig (who started all this), Alan Wilzig, and Sherry Izak.
Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is a freelance writer living in South Florida. She can be reached at Kaliwell@kaliwellinc.com