Saturday, November 18, 2006

Telling People's Stories since 1981

with thanks to my father, Dr. Max Thaler, whose dream of the Unforgettables is a a constant inspiration.

In 1981 I took a trip to London. While there, I met a palm reader who said to me, among other things... “You’ll be a relatively successful writer in your middle years.” At the time, a mother of two young children, writing was far from my mind. Of course, I had been an English major in college, and I had just finished a CETA job, editing a newsletter. I was something of a closet poet back then... So, when I got back to the states, I remember saying to my 11 year old daughter, “Well, maybe I’ll write a book one day.”

The next day a friend of my parents’, Lou Greenblatt, gave me a call. He wanted to talk to me, he said, about writing a book with him. Lou, a North Country businessman, had always wanted to write a history of early Jewish families in our area. But, as a businessman, he’d never gotten around to it. Now he found himself diagnosed with terminal cancer. One year, the doctors gave him. Well, he explaned to me, he wanted to spend that year writing his book. He’d asked my mom to help him, but she wasn’t interested. “Ask Joanie,” she’d said. So, he was asking.

And, I agreed to take part in what turned out to be one of the most interesting projects of my life: the creation of “BEFORE US, a History of Early Jewish Families in St. Lawrence County.” Lou enlisted another woman as well, Blanche Levine of Massena NY. Like Charlie’s Angels, we met with Lou, who sent us out on interviewing missions. Then we came home and wrote. And we did create this book, from start to finish, in one year. Lou did, from his hospital bed, read the finished manuscript and approve. And to all our surprise, it turned out to be a local best seller. Not only amongst the few Northern New York Jewish families, but amongst local people in general. The book went into a second printing and is still available today through Potsdam, New York’s Temple Beth El.

Since then, I’ve done a good bit of interviewing, transcribing, and designing oral history books. In 1997, I worked with my mother, Angela Thaler, in the creation of “Life Stories of the Old and Young” in connection with Temple Har Hashem in Boulder, Colorado. With the help of book designer, Steven Stanley, proof reader Claire Greenbaum, and fellow interviewer, Bronia Gallon, “Life Stories” came into being. This book also became a surprise success. And, while I was far away in Oregon, my mother was being congratulated by the mayor of Denver, Colorado.

In 2001, I created a memory book, “Angela’s Artwork,” for my mother, herself. And in 2003, my friend, Elaine Weiss, impressed with my mother’s book, asked me to work with her mother, Dorothy Emerman, in the creation of a biography. This turned into “As Not Reported in The New York Times, the Life and Times of Dorothy Emerman.” With the family’s permission, I will include segments of this book for your perusal. Check for links to the right.

Dorothy Blanche Emerman

Memorial comments by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County, New Jersey

Dorothy Blanche Emerman was born in Bialystock, Galacia, now Poland, on Dec. 15, 1920 to Schmuel and Faegel Elevitsky, who were silk weavers, which was one of the few things Jews were allowed to do for work at the time. She was born into a place in the world where pogroms and looting surrounded her family, and where her father had to stand in line for hours to get bread. Dorothy’s father came to America, and when she was two years old, he was able to send for her, her mother, and her older sister Gertie to follow suit. The family endured the ship ride, Gertie’s Scarlet Fever, and their being quarantined at Ellis Island before they began their new life in West New York and all of the challenges that came with being a new immigrant in the Depression era.
Dorothy, who grew up s “Dotty,” or “Dot,” watched her parents learn English, open several stores, and move the family several times from apartment to apartment. But the family fared well, even better than many others around them, and her mother often lent money to those who were not as lucky, even taking money from the register at the shop and giving it to customers.

It was in her parents’ candy shop that Dorothy met Arnold, the man who would become her husband and the father of her two daughters, Elaine and Marsha. In her self-published autobiography, Dotty sid, “I met Arnold basically because he liked to buy candy.” She recalled meeting him over a game of paddle-ball outside of the candy store. She remembered his beautiful dark brown eyes, olive skin, and his self-deprecating manner, which she admired as an indicator he wasn’t an egoist. He used to say that she was “sweeter than the candy.” They used to go dancing together, despite his initial shyness, and came to love doing the Fox Trott, the Lindy, and the Tango among other moves of the time. They kept enjoying dncing with each other even through to their 50th wedding anniversary party. Arnie and Dotty went together for five years before getting married in 1942. They stayed close to their families, living in Bayonne, just up the block from her parents’ store, until Arnold was drafted. Life became harder for them for the months of Arnold’s training -- they moved to Alabama and then to Minnesota before Dorothy came back to Bayonne to live with her mother, Fanny (and father, Sam), pregnant with Elaine while Arnold was stationed in Japan. His return home in 1946, among millions of American soldiers, was another transition for the family. Marsha was born ten days after they moved to Ridgefield, NJ in 1950. Elaine and Marsha remember their trips to the Jersey Shore with their mother, Gertie, and their cousins Phyllis and David over many summers.

Dorothy loved the ocean. And she had a child-like love for the beauty of both natural and humanly created things -- a ripe, delicious peach from a farmer’s market, or a surprise bouquet of fresh flowers from her husband. But also seeing her old china eclectically matched with newer pottery in her daughter’s home when she came to visit. These joys of life were constants for Dorothy -- small but powerful appreciations against the background of the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. These connections to the visual beauty of the world were rooted by Dorothy’s knowledge of the visual arts. Art was essential to her; it was life to her. She surrounded her daughters with ballet, concerts, and lessons to instill in them a love of the arts. Her own exhibition of her work late in life brought her into a sense of self that she hadn’t known before that time, a late gift for a woman who could remember enjoying making drawings even as a young child in school.

In this last decade of Dorothy’s life, after losing Arnold to Alzheimer’s, Marsha and Bob were incredibly important presences in her life, taking her to the beaches of Australia where she could experience the vastness of the ocean she has always loved. Elaine and Michael, her son-in-law, were tremendous forces in helping her make a transition between New Jersey and Oregon. And Dorothy also bonded with friends later in her life; many people came to love her. And so we come here this morning to remember her life and to mourn her death. This morning, we offer comfort to Elaine and Marsha, who mourn the loss of their mother, to Max, though he is far away, who mourns his grandmother, to Bob, who mourns his mother-in-law, to Dorothy’s nieces and nephews who have lost an aunt, and to her friends as well. Even though we feel grateful for the 88 years she lived, we also grieve over the loss of Dorothy, whose journey from Bialystock back to New Jersey, was a life rich with family and culture, history and friends, love and art. Today, on the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of the holiday of Sukkot, a week when many Jews build small, temporary huts outside to recall the biblical harvest season and the journey of the ancient israelites through the desert wilderness. This time is about both impermanence and fragility, but it is also about harvest and bounty. And it teaches us a bit about the paradox of life -- that, like the harvest, it can yield so much delicious benevolence, and yet, like the sukkah, it is merely a temporary structure. Today Dorothy will be buried next to her husband Arnold, and we will help usher her to her final resting place. As we mourn her, we remember her. In the Jewish tradition, it is through memory that a person continues to live, and so we say, “zichronah livrachah,” may her memory be a blessing. (Joan Thaler Dobbie recorded her autobiography)