90 years young, longtime friend still ‘reads to live’

Tomorrow, a very old (in two senses) friend will celebrate another 90-plus birthday. I know a lot of Dallasites will want to join me in sending her our very best wishes.
Natalie Baker was a World War II WAVE. After she finished her naval service, she came to Dallas to live with a cousin and study at SMU.
She immediately joined Temple Emanu-El because Levi Olan had been her rabbi back in Worcester, Massachusetts, her home town. Here she soon met and married Milton Lewis, another veteran and Temple member. Of course it was Rabbi Olan who officiated at their wedding.
Natalie’s religious school teaching spanned more than a half-century, most of it at Emanu-El. And in Dallas she was also a Herzl Hadassah stalwart, introducing the Tu B’Shevat seder to the group, taking great joy in setting the holiday’s essential fruits, nuts and wines on white-clothed tables for everyone to understand and enjoy.
How did she have time to do all this when she was working full-time for Barnes and Noble? There, for years, she was the beloved adviser to so many local book clubs who came to her for suggestions on what to read and discuss next.
But not long after Milton passed away, Natalie decided she no longer wanted to drive, or to keep up a house by herself. So she left Dallas for a new home, one closer to two of her four children and their families. Her choice was an apartment in Leisure World, the huge, full-service senior residence complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, a nearby suburb of Washington, D.C. She is happy there because its 8,000 residents include 2,000 Jews, for whom there is a rich and fulfilling religious life.
Natalie and I carry on a good, old-fashioned correspondence — hand-written letters, stamped and mailed. In one of them, she enclosed a newspaper clipping about the association called Jewish Residents of Leisure World. Here are some excerpts:
“We have services for every Jewish holiday. … There are Sunday brunches with interesting programs. JRLW provides numerous other educational and entertaining programs, many in conjunction with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. The Education Committee arranges for pertinent classes. We cooperate with other religious groups on inter-religious activities. … Above all, JRLW provides a welcoming Jewish presence for the residents of Leisure World, a place where we can get together and share common interests.”
Shabbat services offer choices: usually Reform on Friday evenings, Conservative on Saturday mornings (the latter sometimes a bit abbreviated to allow time for Torah and Talmud study, about which Natalie comments, “I love it!”). Membership in the group is $20 per year; certainly, donations are always welcome to buy prayerbooks, pay for Torah maintenance and help defray the regular Kiddush and Oneg costs.
In addition to taking part in virtually every Jewish activity at Leisure World, Natalie attends an array of other classes and lectures. She plays Scrabble, and of course she continues to read — voraciously. Every note I get from her includes mention of what she has just read, and/or is currently reading, and/or plans to read next. “I have a mug that says ‘Read to Live,’ ” she writes. “I always say, if you are a reader, you always have a friend.” She tells me that she agrees with what my own father used to say: “Reading is not a mere means to life; reading is life itself.” Natalie knows what my dad said because she read it in the Texas Jewish Post; she is one of our most faithful “long-distance” subscribers, and my most valued critic.
Oh — I didn’t tell you that Natalie continued working for Barnes and Noble in the D.C. area until she thought she shouldn’t be climbing those ladders up to the highest bookshelves any more; now, finally in full retirement, she continues to climb the ladder of life instead.
So: Happy 90-plus years tomorrow, Natalie. And many more tomorrows to come!

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