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BEVIS HILLIER

Your Move, Uncle Sam : The Statue of Liberty Plays Queen in a Chess Set Honoring the U.S. Constitution

August 09, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

Chess is not the most democratic of games. The king, admittedly, is a poor creature, who waddles about and needs constant protection. But the queen has vast powers to charge across the board and make summary executions. The castles are miniature Bastilles. Bishops and knights do not have much of a place in an egalitarian society. The pawns are faceless functionaries.

Los Angeles Rabbi Alfred Wolf and his wife, Miriam, decided to change all that. Together they have designed, and she has made in clay, a chess set that represents the U.S. Constitution. In this year that marks the bicentennial of the signing of the Constitution, it seems to them a more appropriate set for Americans than the traditional king- and-court model.

Instead of the king there's Uncle Sam, top-hatted and benevolent-looking. "He is the largest figure on the board," says Miriam Wolf, "and symbolizes a concept larger than all of us." The equivalent of the queen is the Statue of Liberty; blind Justice represents the bishop. The knight is replaced by the presidential seal in the form of an eagle--"strong without being fierce," Miriam Wolf says. The castle is the Capitol dome.

The Wolfs agreed on the character and design of all those pieces. "The only thing I fought about was the pawns," says Miriam Wolf. "He wanted them to be all alike, but I said: 'They're citizens. We have the same value, but we're all different.' Since I was making the chess set, I did it my way. And they all came out looking like my children."

The Wolfs' oldest son, David, is president of Pierce Community College, Los Angeles. Their daughter, Judith, is principal of Haskell Elementary School in Granada Hills. Their son Dan is press deputy for Kenneth Hahn, supervisor of the 2nd district of Los Angeles County. Their grandson, David's son Benjamin Wolf, was a member of the Marshall High School team that won the National Academic Decathlon in June. (Benjamin was the third-ranking student and has been accepted at Yale University.)

When she was working out what the pawns should be, Miriam Wolf decided that, where possible, they should belong to professions with distinctive hats. "And I wanted something in their hands that would show what they do. There are a lot of professions that you cannot portray that way. It narrowed things down. Like I had a baseball player on one side, a football player on the other."

Rabbi Wolf chips in: "Wherever there are equivalents, they are on the same line, like soldier / sailor, construction worker / welder, farmer / cowboy--we tried to get a cross section of the population." Other--perhaps less obvious--pairings are cook / policeman and railroad engineer / journalist. (The journalist wears a trench coat and carries a camera and a press card.) I had never before thought of my opposite number as a railroad engineer, but that's the Constitution for you. All equal but all different.

Miriam Wolf had no formal art training, but the chess pieces are skillfully modeled in natural terra-cotta clay, with a coat of white glaze for the white pieces. The only color used is the Capri blue on the board, which resembles a tiled bathroom floor and is surrounded by a border of stars.

At present, the chess set is strictly a "one of a kind." Rabbi Wolf says: "We are at the moment talking to somebody about the possibility-- and it's still a remote possibility--that they may re-create the set for commercial production. They cannot copy our set exactly because to make molds for all these pieces would be very difficult. Each of Miriam's pieces was made by hand without regard to whether a mold could be made around it. So if it is done

at all, the set will have to be remodeled by a commercial artist who knows how to make figures that are moldable."

The Wolfs first met as result of two biblical scourges--persecution of the Jews and a great flood. Alfred Wolf was born near Heidelberg, Germany. He was the top student in his class at school; but the year he would have received a school prize, the Nazi authorities decided that the prize would not be awarded. Also--even considering the anti-Jewish laws--he was in theory entitled to go to university as the son of a man who had fought for Germany in World War I; but he was given no place at Berlin University. In 1935 Wolf was one of five students brought to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

A friend of Wolf's at the Cincinnati college had relatives in Dayton, Ohio, and asked him to stay. In 1937, tremendous storms throughout the Ohio valley caused one of the worst floods ever of the Ohio River. The college's electricity and water supplies were cut off. Those students who had homes to go to were asked to go there. Wolf could not return to Germany; so his friend invited him to stay again in Dayton. There he met Miriam Office. "I was escaping both Hitler and the flood," he says.

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