Origami serves as great way for people to bond with each other

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Origami: the traditional art of folding objects and 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 grabs Sylvester by the collar with mayhem on his mind. Sylvester holds up his hands in a fighting position and says, “You better watch out, Rocky. I am practiced in the ancient art of origami.” “Paper−fo­lding?” smiles Rocky. Sylvester gets out of the hospital next Tuesday.

Yes, today even Rocky knows the definition of origami. That was not true when I was a child. I remember paper−folding newspapers to create hats, sailboats and airplanes. These activities introduced me to origami.

As a columnist, I make certain that every August, on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I relate the poignant story of the little 7−year−old Japanese girl severely burned by the radiation. Near death, the nurses at the hospital told her that if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes, she will recover.

The girl managed to fold 448 and succumbed before reaching her goal. The other hospitalized children, doctors and staff completed the task and folded the goal in remembrance.

Since then, paper cranes have become a globally recognized peace symbol. The stone monuments in 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 immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks.

I became interested in origami many years ago, when Gloria began teaching it to children at the American Museum of Natural History. I marveled at the many little, busy fingers folding origami paper into various shapes. Why has origami become so popular in recent years? Let’s go back to its origins.

It 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” (to fold) and “gami” (paper). It is practiced the world over.

Origami is great therapy for aging and 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. In spite of political disagreements, origami is a bonding activity that can bring people together.

Many dedicated origami volunteers at the museum are devoted to this art form. 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.” She became an origami specialist ever since.

She relates this amusing incident. When the MetroCards first came out, Toby began collecting the discarded cards she found in subway stations and 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.

Forest Hills’ Norma Coblenz, a Queens teacher, was introduced to origami by a friend from Hong Kong. She has been an ardent volunteer since 1980 and enjoys folding with children. “Children are more creative than adults and much more fun” says Norma.

Gloria and I visit the AMNH often and are amazed by the origami designs made by the mathematical geniuses who think up such intricate 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? These are made without tape or glue.

In honor of the holiday season, every year the museum displays an origami Christmas tree. This year, the showing will run from Nov. 24 through Jan. 1. The tree is colorful and abundantly decorated with hundreds of intricate paper shapes (animals, holiday ornaments, etc.) folded by volunteers and made from paper.

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

So if you want a thrilling holiday experience, fold yourself and your children to the AMNH post−haste.

You may even see Gloria and me at one of the origami tables.

Reach columnist Alex Berger at

Posted 6:40 pm, October 10, 2011
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