Roslyn Zinn: 

1922-2008

Artist, Activist, friend

 

Roslyn Zinn: “Roz’s smile made the plants grow” Alice Walker July ’08

 

(The following remembrances were woven together by Eleanor Rubin)

Roslyn Zinn was born on December 2, 1922 and died on May 14, 2008.  I write about her now as her longtime close friend who is full of longing for her. It is impossible for me or for any one person to do justice to the many facets of her life.  I’ve written a brief remembrance that I call “Sanctuary,” and turned to others to complete the picture.

 

Alice Shechter, Roz’s niece, provided information about Roz’s birth family, her early life and its Jewish context.  I quote Alice and her father Ben in the section called “Raizeleh, shpiel mir a lidele.” Roz herself wrote a short statement for her 2006 exhibition in Wellfleet, Massachusetts and I include it below using her title,   “Painting Life: Roslyn Zinn’s Artist Statement”.   Words by Howard Zinn, Roz’s beloved husband of 63 years conclude these remembrances

  

Roz’s own self-portraits and two photos of her accompany these words of tribute.

 

A note about the paintings: Roslyn Zinn exhibited only two self-portraits among the hundred or so paintings she has shown.  The written tributes here include   many descriptions of Roz’s radiant smile so you might expect her self-portrait, to show her smiling.  However, she painted herself as a woman looking straight ahead, not smiling but absorbing the world and gazing out at us with an intensely focused expression that engages each viewer. She selected brilliant colors for one of these self-portraits and mixed them complexly.  She seems to glow.  In the other, she wears a knit hat, her eyes are shadowed.   Roz’s self-portraits bring us close to her, and that is why I begin this tribute by mentioning these paintings.  To see more of Roz’s paintings, go to her website: www.roslynzinn.com.

 

Sanctuary  Eleanor Rubin

I first met Roslyn Zinn at an anti Vietnam War demonstration in 1968.   I was part of a large group of people in a chapel at Boston University that had become a sanctuary for a soldier who had gone AWOL.  The soldier spoke about his opposition to the war.  People supporting the soldier spoke about the risks he was taking and about the bloodshed he was opposing.    We in the sanctuary sang songs.  I was very moved and eventually I was in tears.  A stranger sitting near me noticed my distress and handed me a cup of water.    That stranger was Roslyn Zinn.  Later, a supportive group gathered outside the sanctuary.  This group walked together with candles, maintaining the vigil.   Walking next to me was Roz Zinn whose energy, verve and generosity connected me to her.   We walked in step with each other, we talked, introduced each other to our husbands, David Rubin and Howard Zinn, both BU faculty members.  We became friends. And from that night forth our friendship grew and grew.  Over the years, we shared meals and conversations and other vigils and our families grew close. In the 90s when Roz began to paint, our friendship took on new dimensions because we each cared about and inspired each other’s artwork.

Eleanor Rubin is an artist whose home and studio is in West Newton, MA

 

“Raizeleh, Shpiel mir a lidele”:   Alice Shechter, Roz’s niece gathered the following stories about Roz from Roz’s brothers, Ben, Carl and Saul.

 

Roz’s father Jacob Shechter, (b. 1890) came to the U.S in April 1920 from Kamen Kashirskiy a shtetl in the the Ukraine, arriving on the Baltic which had sailed from Liverpool. (Click here to see some pictures of Kamen Kashirskiy.) Jacob had been enticed by a promise that if he came and served in the U.S army, his children would become American citizens.  His wife Ruchel came later with their two daughters Freda and Betty who had been born in Europe. Ruchel had been sixteen when she fell in love with Jacob and their relationship distressed Jacob’s family.  His family was held in high esteem in the shtetl, while  Ruchel was regarded by them as an illiterate orphan.

 

Roz was the fourth child, the first daughter to be born in America (December 2, 1922).  Eventually there were 6 children born to Ruchel and Jacob, three daughters and three sons.    As everyone in the family tells the story, Roz was the favored child.  In birth order she landed in the middle of a bunch of high spirited, brawling brothers.  But she was blond, healthy, lovely and bright and even in the hardest times, her parents paid for piano lessons for her at 25 cents a week.  The uncles said she would always get the first bath, and then the other family members would re-use the bath water; and that her mother would skim the cream from the un-homogenized milk and feed it to Roz (though Roz often refused it-too rich and fattening!) 

 

Yiddish was the language of the household and all six of the children were fluent Yiddish speakers.     Jacob went to synagogue but on the high holy days and occasionally on other holidays.  He could recite the prayers and services from memory because of his early training and Roz’s brothers say he loved to go to the synagogue had to earn a living and couldn’t get regularly.  Ruchel was very observant, recited morning prayers at home, kept kosher, lit Shabbos candles. But like most women in Jewish immigrant families, she did not go to synagogue   While all the boys went to Hebrew school and were Bar Mitzvah bochars, none of the girls received any formal Jewish education.  They absorbed the lessons from their mother on how to be a “good Jewish wife.”   By all accounts, Ruchel was a hardworking mother of 6, polishing all their shoes, cooking, cleaning to a fault, laundering their clothes, etc. All the children attended New York public schools. Roz’s brothers conjectured that the family values of honesty, fairness, loyalty, and helping others derived in some way from being Jewish; but they could not really articulate how that was different from just absorbing those values from their parents.  Roz had a wonderful sense of humor and loved a good joke, especially if it had a Yiddish flavor.

 

One early memory of Roz (recalled by her brother Ben) is about her relationship to her father and about her playing the piano: Alice records Ben’s memory “Their father would come home from a long day at work and would sit beside Roz on the piano bench and say in Yiddish: “Raizeleh, shpiel mir a lidele!” (Roslyn, play me a song.)  He would hum the tune he wished to hear and she would play, to his great pleasure. “No matter how poor we were, each time the family moved which was often, because if you moved into a new place you got a month’s free rent and a paint job-they found the $5 that it cost to move the piano with them via rigging through the parlor window.”

 

 Ben described their father’s work in this way: he struggled to find any kind of  work to support his family.  After years of odd jobs like seltzer delivery, (trudging up  and down stairs with cases of beverages on his back) and selling potatoes off a truck, he got some training at Brooklyn Automotive, a technical school.  He bought a gas station and fixed cars that would come in and involved each of his sons at some point in working with him.

  

Roslyn was a high school graduate and was always literary and artistic, in

and out of school. According to her brothers, after high school she worked as

a secretary for a law firm of 7 attorneys, each of who paid her one dollar per  week.   She was a rebel from the get-go, drawn to progressive groups and causes, and frequenting clubs or cafes filled with socialists and revolutionaries of the time.  

 

Roz met Howard when he was sent by a friend to deliver a note to her.   Howard went in good faith to carry this love note from his friend to Roz ,  but was astonished and overwhelmed by the beautiful woman he encountered.  He delivered the note but left her house sensing that a deep romantic spark had been struck between them.    Howard and Roz were married in December 1944, while Howard was in the service and training to go overseas as a bombadier

 

Alice concludes her account of Roz’s Jewish upbringing by saying:

“In recent years Roz would attend our Seder in New York and loved being there with family celebrating that particular event.  Of course, my Seder would be unrecognizable to an Orthodox Jew, laced as it is with references to African American freedom struggles, WWII partisan resistance, hopes for Middle East peace and justice, and anti-war sentiments; not to mention Marge Piercy poetry and civil rights songs.”  But Roz and Howard were completely at home when they came to Alice’s Seder.

 

Alice Shechter, who gathered this early life history, ended with her own personal remarks saying, “She has left such a big space in the world, and though warm and loving memories will decorate the space with beauty, it will never stop being the space where Roz used to be.” Alice Shechter was for many years the director of Camp Kinderland, a camp founded in 1923 by Jewish activists as a retreat for their children from the tenements of NYC.

 

Painting Life: Roslyn Zinn’s artist’s statement

After years as a teacher and social worker, I turned seriously to painting, which throughout my life had sparked and enlivened my spirit.

 

For the last twenty years, from representation to figurative-expressionism to abstraction, I've tried to explore what paint can do.  The work is invested with my own emotion and experience, finding those aspects which have meaning for me, and with which I can identify.

 

I take my subjects from everyday life and the surrounding environment, paying attention to what is real, to the everydayness of things and people around me, even when transmuted through the prism of abstraction.  I have shown my work at the Radcliffe College Schlesinger Library, the Newton Art Center, the Powers Music School in Belmont, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Art Association, and the Wellfleet Public Library.  My work is also out in the world in private collections, as well as with friends and family.

 

As I continue to paint, and the work accumulates, I donate paintings to the Art Connection of Boston, which gives artwork to qualified public and non-profit agencies, such as: homeless shelters, volunteer lawyers projects, schools, clinics, elder services, shelters for battered women and their children, rape crisis centers.   What I see in the world, so burdened and troubled, and yet beautiful in nature and in the human form, impels me to seek to create images that give the possibility of hope.

This “portrait” of Roz concludes with Howard’s  words which were read by their son Jeff at the Memorial service for Roz on July 9, 2008.

 

 “Her gift to us: courage, kindness, a glimpse of how people might be in a better world” Howard Zinn

 

Thank you for being here with me to honor Roz, with Myla and Jonny, and their children Will and Naushon and Serena, with Jeff and Crystal and their children,  Georgia and Noah—with all our friends..

        My sadness is indescribable, but  I keep  reminding myself how lucky I am  – to have been married for sixty three years to a woman whose beauty, body and soul,  always filled me with awe.   Our love for one another, our friendship, our passion, never diminished through all those years.

         From the start we were drawn to one another by some deep spiritual connection,  and by our common feeling for  oppressed people everywhere  We both longed for a better world.

          Roz was a more rounded person than I was. She didn’t  just love music, she played music. She didn’t just appreciate art, she became a painter. She loved flowers, and planted them. She loved theater and took to the stage. She loved the sea and swam in the coldest of waters. A few weeks ago I was in Wellfleet and the bay was too cold for me, but I went into it, saying to myself:  “This is in honor of Roz.”

            She loved literature and was always reading. At her bedside at the end was a volume of Isaac Babel’s stories.  I had total faith in her literary sensibility, so she was the only one who read my writing before I gave it to the publisher.  She would undoubtedly suggest, listening to this, that I shorten it. .

           She loved people, and they loved her, instantly. Eddie Vedder told a colleague in Seattle of Roz’s death and she wrote back; “When I met her I remember thinking if I could be anyone, this is the person I want to be.”

         When we went South to Spelman College, the young African-American women there felt an immediate bond with her, and she with  them.

             As troubled as she was by the state of the world, she was irrepressibly happy. In the hundreds of letters I have received since her death, she is remembered always  as luminous, smiling, joyful.  She grieved for people in

trouble, but loved to laugh..

                 She loved her children and grandchildren and she loved other people’s children and grandchildren.

                 Roz was the most selfless person I ever knew.

I have a  photo of an anti-war demonstration, and it shows a man  being dragged  into a police  car but you can only see his back. . Roz is at the scene,, leaning towards it as if wanting to do something, an anguished look on her face.  The man might have been  me, but it wasn’t,  It was not  someone Roz knew, but that didn’t  matter.  

      Two years ago she was badly injured coming up an escalator  because she heard a cry behind her, instinctively turned to help, and fell.

       After she was diagnosed last July she decided immediately, firmly,  that she would not have surgery or chemotherapy, that she would live out whatever time she had as peacefully, as enjoyably as possible. We spent August and part of September in Wellfleet, where she swam every day, where she read, listened to music, and we watched Red Sox games together. She said later that was the happiest summer of her life. I stopped traveling and for the next six months  we enjoyed a wonderful tranquility together.  .

           At the very end, lying in bed,  she was concerned about me: would I have enough to eat? would I be able to take care of  myself?

               She once  spent  a night in jail in Washington DC for protesting against the war in Vietnam. But she was not usually that kind of activist.  Her contribution to the world transcended politics. It was her love of people,  her kindness

          I wrote to our friend Alice Walker about Roz and said: you’re in California, you don’t have to come to the memorial. She wrote back and said: “I’m coming. I love you and Roz with all my heart as you know. Can’t wait to hold you and remind you she’s not gone anywhere.  I feel her and always see her wonderful luminous face and loving smile. Roz’s smile made the plants grow”.

          I’m comforted by what Alice says. Yes,  Roz’s  spirit is still here, her gift to us,  courage, kindness, a glimpse of how people might be in a better world.

 

Boston Globe Obituary By Bryan Marquard  (sidebar)

 

May 21, 2008

 

The dunes overlooking Wellfleet's shore, a terrain Roslyn Zinn revered during summer visits, glow in one of her paintings with a singular warmth, as if she perceived the landscape more deeply than any seasonal pilgrim.

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"After years as a teacher and social worker, I turned seriously to painting, which throughout my life had sparked and enlivened my spirit," Ms. Zinn wrote in a brief introduction to "Painting Life," a collection of her work that was published last year, a few months after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "What I see in the world, so burdened and troubled, and yet beautiful in nature and in the human form, impels me to seek to create images that give the possibility of hope."

 

A glorious spray of tulips, the gentle curve of an unclothed hip, the deep smile lines etched around her husband's mouth - Ms. Zinn's brush found in each of her subjects a sense of serenity and promise. And those same qualities, present in her along with a radiant delight in life, impressed those she met her during her long marriage to historian Howard Zinn as they walked arm in arm in marches protesting wars from Vietnam to Iraq.

 

Ms. Zinn, who was always the first and most important reader of her husband's many books and essays, died May 14 in their home in the Auburndale village of Newton. She was 85 and had continued to climb the stairs to her studio and paint until the last days of her life.

 

"She was a passionate person, passionately committed to the causes of peace and justice, and she was anguished by what was happening in the world," her husband said. "At the same time, she was a very sunny, happy, warm person."

 

"The woman exuded love and openness," said James Carroll, an author and columnist for the Globe's opinion pages and a friend of the Zinns. "I felt it, but everyone who met her felt it. She was just an affirming person."

 

He added: "Radical politics could be intimidating and frightening because the questions are so hard, but Roz Zinn made it all seem like the most natural thing in the world to ask the tough questions. She took the threat away."

 

Blending the arts with activism, Ms. Zinn worked for many years as a social worker and was an actor and musician. While her husband rose to prominence as a writer and a professor at Boston University, hers was the unseen hand shaping sentences that inspired his readers and students.

 

"I never showed my work to anyone except her, because she was such a fine editor," he said. "She had such a sensibility about what worked, what read well, what was necessary, what was redundant."

 

One of six children of a Polish immigrant family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roslyn Shechter read avidly and had already shown promise in high school as a writer and editor before meeting Howard Zinn. They dated briefly, then courted through a lengthy correspondence as he was sent to training bases with the US Army Air Corps. Four days into his first furlough, they married in October 1944.

 

She raised their two children in a low-income housing project in New York City's Lower East Side after the war and worked for a publishing company while her husband attended graduate school. When he took a teaching job at Spelman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s during the nascent days of the civil rights movement, she was the only white actor on the stage in some productions of the Atlanta-Morehouse-Spelman Players.

 

"For 'The King and I,' they wanted a white woman and asked her to do that," her husband said. "White people came to see it and were taken aback. There was an actual gasp in the audience when the black King of Siam put his arm around her waist to dance. Atlanta in 1959 was like Johannesburg, South Africa, it was so rigidly segregated."

 

Moving to Boston when her husband began teaching at BU, she finished her undergraduate work through Goddard College's adult degree program. Ms. Zinn took courses at BU's School of Social Work and then worked with the elderly in East Boston and with young clients in Dorchester and Roxbury.

 

Throughout, she kept a hand in the arts, whether playing recorder with a group in Cambridge or as an appreciative audience member.

 

"Usually, when I would see her, it was after a show, and she was just always beaming, always engaged in the moment," said the comedian Jimmy Tingle. "I'm sure there were nights when I came off stage and it wasn't that great, but she would never let on. She would say, 'That was fantastic!' She gave you great validation."

 

Retiring 20 years ago, Ms. Zinn turned to painting, and tried a number of different styles. She showed her paintings in some venues, and often gave them away to nonprofits. But many friends didn't realize the scope of her accomplishments until an exhibition in Wellfleet a couple of years ago.

 

"I was awestruck by the body of work and the range," said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a longtime friend and former neighbor. "I had no idea she had produced that much. It was only then that I realized what a brilliant artist she was."

 

Diagnosed with cancer last summer, Ms. Zinn "wrote me and said in effect that she was going to live as normally as possible as long as she could, and that meant visiting with her family, including her grandchildren, and painting and reading poetry," said Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and peace activist. "She was going to be in charge of her life, instead of giving it over to the medical profession."

 

Howard Zinn said that after the diagnosis, they went to their summer home in Wellfleet, where "she swam twice a day and announced it was the best summer of her life."

 

"She seemed to elevate to some place of profound contentment," Carlsson-Paige said. "Roz was always a content person, but she has been supremely happy. I've never seen her sad. I've seen her cherishing every moment, every experience she had, every rainstorm."

 

Two weeks before Ms. Zinn died, she told Carlsson-Paige during a visit that she had just finished two paintings. In one, Ms. Zinn sensed a need for something more.

 

"She said, 'I had to put an apple in it,' which I saw - it's this beautiful yellow apple," said Carlsson-Paige, who asked her friend whether she was pleased with the paintings. "And she said, 'Oh, I'm very happy with them.' She was just completely joyful."

In addition to her husband, Ms. Zinn leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington; a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three brothers, Ben, Saul, and Carl Shechter, all of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; three granddaughters; and two grandsons.

 

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