By Harriet P. Gross
Memories, legacies: the two are natural partners, especially at Yom Kippur, when we are looking both backward and forward. Our High Holy Days prayer book talks of acts of remembrance that are realized not only in thought, but also in deed, which therefore encompass within them the past, the present and the future.
Three past-and-future-looking individuals, Meryl and Stewart Ain and Arthur Fischman, were inspired by the life influences of Helen Trachtenberg Fischman, “our mother, mother-in-law and muse,” to compile The Living Memories Project, a book they have subtitled Legacies That Last. In it, they’ve collected more than 30 stories of people — some famous, some not — who have kept matters of past importance fully alive in the present, and for the future.
Some of these living legacies are totally personal, and incredibly simple, like that of Florie Wachtenheim who brings her dear departed mother back to the family table every year at the High Holidays by making her traditional, labor-intensive gefilte fish. That Ashkenazic recipe, with full instructions, appears in the book’s appendix.
Others are much more complicated and far-reaching like Robert Meeropol’s final coming to terms with the death of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executed in 1953, when he was just 6 years-old, for “conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States.” This troubled childhood is what motivated him to establish the Rosenberg Fund for Children, dedicated to the welfare of children whose parents are facing long prison terms.
Jews have contributed many of the stories in this book, but not all. Linda Ruth Tosetti tours the country with a documentary film about her grandfather, the legendary Babe Ruth, telling the truth about his life, in and out of baseball. Lynda Johnson Robb can be seen regularly at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, working hands-on with environmental projects so dear to her mother. Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, physician and musician, carries on the Children’s Orchestra Society founded by her late father, who was her first music teacher and that of her brother, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Jeanette Martinez intended to give up at birth a Down syndrome daughter until her own mother challenged her: “We don’t throw away family.” Today, more than 20 years later, “I can’t imagine life without my Jessica,” she says.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by these stories. Take that of sculptor Susan Dessel, who has turned the Jewish practice of marking gravesites with stones into art: “Still Lives” is her exhibit of memorial stones that, thanks to her research, provides previously unknown individual identities for all of the women who came from Brazil to New Amsterdam in 1654 as founders of the first Jewish community in the New World. She has also used exotic Purpleheart wood to create a setting for stones in memory of American military who died in Iraq.
Hazel Dukes, a leader in the NAACP, says she became a civil rights activist because of “the values and traditions I associate with my grandmother and mother.” Ellen Gould wrote and performs her Emmy Award-winning one-woman musical, “Bubbe Meises, Bubbe Stories,” in memory of her two grandmothers. Jen Chapin, daughter of folk-rock’s late Harry Chapin, preserves her father’s values by performing his songs at concerts that benefit WhyHunger, the organization he co-founded in 1975. The late Jack Klugman honored the earlier passing of his great friend and “Odd Couple” co-star Tony Randall with a continuing career of hard work and much laughter.
Vital legacies can consist of far more than money. Memories may morph into good deeds and worthy projects that carry into the future what was best in our pasts. The results can be as big as founding an organization, or as small as writing a poem to pass on to the next generation. Just remember to tell the story that goes with the memory, for the legacy is in the story. And we are nothing if not our stories.