Sarah Lapovsky Schiffrin
On Sarah's 80th birthday my sister and her husband recognized Sarah by presenting her with a Certificate of Achievement that summed up her extraordinarily full life:
' In honor and recognition of [Sarah's] outstanding achievement in surviving the vicissitudes of life for 80 years with dignity and grace, while being a champion of good causes and an exemplary wife, mother, sister and friend.' This continued to be true until today her 95th birthday and hopefully well into the future.
As my aunt, Sarah has meant a lot to me, keeping me in touch with the long tradition of activism for peace and justice in the world, reminding me that material things are not as important as social justice, and encouraging me in my many endeavors. Throughout her eighties and into her nineties she continues to be an activist. At 88 she joined me at a National Women's Studies Association Meeting in Oakland, attending sessions for two days. At 89, she thought nothing of taking a bus into San Francisco with a friend to attend an anti-war demonstration; at 94 she is still standing with Women in Black. She inspires me to have her commitment to action for a better world when I am her age.
Sarah faced a number of challenges when she was young. She was the youngest of 4 children and a girl amongst 3 boys; her youngest brother, my father, was 13 years older than her. When she was two, her family moved from Williamsburg, a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, to a Gentile neighborhood, where it was hard to make friends. During the week she was very much alone, spending time primarily with her mother who spoke Yiddish, not English, and did not partake of American culture; luckily, other women of the family visited and provided warmth and fun. Sarah experienced two major traumas before she turned 20. In her early teens, her mother began to suffer with leukemia; a lot of her care fell to Sarah, who felt helpless to make things better. Her mother died in 1933 when Sarah was 15. Four or five years later due to the Depression her father lost his business and had to default on the mortgage. They had to leave the house and most everything behind. This affected her life dramatically, always believing that one should never invest in or become attached to things, because one can always lose them.
Typical of Sarah, after she had told me the story of her childhood, she called to let me know that she had forgotten something important that she wanted to add. Thinking about being honored in the Plaza, she remembered her Aunt Shanie who had lived with them while she was growing up. In Sarah's mind, Tante Shanie was the person who needed to be celebrated. She never received recognition or congratulations for her work. Sarah never heard another person say something good to her. She would run the whole house when Sarah's mother went away for 2 months every summer. And when Sarah's mother became sick, she took care of her, nursing her until her death. Yet no one ever appreciated her. Sarah felt even worse about this because when Tanta Shanie came to stay with her to help her with her children, she treated Shanie just like everyone else did. Sarah comments: 'What a terrible plight it was for women who were deserted by their husbands.'