Berger’s Burg: Bond with your fellow man by sharing the joy of origami

By Alex Berger

Origami: The traditional art of folding figures out of paper without cutting, pasting or decorating. — Webster’s Dictionary

Sylvester, a timid soul, accidentally stepped on the foot of Rocky, the neighborhood bully, who grabbed Sylvester by the collar. Sylvester held up his hands in a fighting position and said, “You better watch out, Rocky. I practice in the ancient art of origami!”

“You mean paper-folding?” smirked Rocky.

Sylvester got out of the hospital the next week.

Yes, everyone knows what origami is, but this was not true when I was a child. I remember paper-folding newspapers to create hats, sailboats and airplanes. These basics were a child’s introduction to origami, but never did I imagine origami would become a universal phenomenon.

Origami first made its impact on the world during World War II — and if you heard the following story before, please bear with me. With many nations possessing, or to possess, nuclear weapons, this story must be told over and over.

Every August, on the anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, I relate the story of the 7-year-old Japanese girl who was burned by the radiation. She was near death. To give the child hope, the nurses at the hospital told the girl if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes — birds — she would recover.

She managed to fold 448 but succumbed before reaching that goal. The other children, doctors and staff completed the task in remembrance of the girl. Since then, paper cranes have become a globally recognized peace symbol. The stone monuments of Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima are ornamented with millions of folded cranes. One thousand paper cranes were also placed at the site of the World Trade Center following Sept. 11.

I became interested in origami several years ago, when Gloria began teaching it to school children at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It was a thrill watching many little, busy fingers folding origami paper into various shapes. Why has origami become so popular? Let’s go back to its beginnings.

This art began hundreds of years ago in Asia. It was thought to have originated in China about 2,000 years ago. It made its way to Japan by the sixth century and received its name from the Japanese words “ori,” meaning “to fold,” and “gami,” meaning “paper.”

Origami is wonderful therapy for children, the elderly, nursing home patients, people tired of playing bridge and me. Interestingly, the Origami Society in Israel is using it to unify Israelis and Palestinians by having them sit down together and paper-fold. They discovered that, in spite of political disagreements, origami is a bonding activity that can bring people together.

There are many origami volunteers at the museum devoted to this art. One is retired kindergarten teacher Toby Schwartz of Woodside. She became interested in origami in 1991 when she attended an origami class and discovered that paper-folding was a stress-buster. Toby has since become a specialist.

When MetroCards first came out, Toby began collecting the discarded ones she found in subway stations and at bus stops. They were perfect for making “jumping frogs.”

One evening, on her way home, she saw a stack of used MetroCards lying on the ground. A policeman saw Toby pick them up and prepared to give her a ticket for littering. Toby immediately folded a MetroCard into a jumping frog. Not only did she not get a ticket, but the policeman kept the frog for his daughter.

Gloria and I visit the museum often and are fascinated by the origami designs originated by the mathematical geniuses who think up the intricate and complicated creations. Did you ever see an origami chessboard, a lobster, a four-leaf clover, a flower and stem or a toilet paper roll gift box? And these are made without the use of tape, staples or glue.

In celebration of Christmas, every year the museum displays a magnificent Origami Tree. The viewing this year began Nov. 24 and will end Jan. 5. The tree is colorfully and abundantly decorated with hundreds of complex paper shapes — animals, holiday ornaments, etc. — each folded by volunteers and made from paper.

It takes volunteers 2,500 hours and uses 4,000 pieces of paper. At the official tree-lighting ceremony, every visitor received an origami model as a gift.

So, readers, if you want a thrilling holiday experience, fold yourself and your children to the Museum of Natural History. You may even see Gloria and me at one of the origami tables.

Reach Alex Berger at [email protected].

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