God is in the needlework

God is in the needlework

Betty Samuels’ creativity on display at Jewish Center of Teaneck posthumous show

You don’t usually think of someone with a nearly unstoppable supply of natural energy as doing needlework, a craft that demands a huge amount of patience and close attention to minute detail.

One of the many magical things about Betty Winter Samuels is that both those things were true of her. She had a nearly unstoppable supply of natural energy, and her needlework — which she not only executed but also designed — was so beautiful that it will be going on display in the lobby of her shul, the Jewish Center of Teaneck. (See box for details.)

Ms. Samuels died on January 16, 2016, a loss that’s still reverberating in her community; this show gives people another chance to engage with her art, talk about her, and remember her.

The memories are vivid.

Betty Winter, born in 1924, grew up in Flatbush. Her identification with the Jewish community always defined her; in fact, her daughter, Judi Tischler said, when she was young, “she wanted to be a rabbi, but at that time women were not allowed to be rabbis. So she expressed herself in other ways.” The word that Ms. Tischler applied to her mother was “learned. She was extraordinarily learned,” she said.

Ms. Samuels went to New York City public schools; she graduated from high school when she was 15, and then went to Hunter College. At the same time, she took graduate courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She also “had a career at Bloch Publishing, which was a very important Jewish publishing house in the 1950s and 60s,” her daughter said. “She was in charge of a lot of the Hebrew books. Probably her most important client was a young upstart named David Ben-Gurion, who would come to New York to do fundraising for the Jewish state. He would ask to work only with her, and they’d go out to lunch together.”

During that time she met Ruben Samuels, who also was from Brooklyn, and they married and moved to Queens. Mr. Samuels, who spent his whole career in Jewish education, was the principal of the Rego Park Jewish Center, and the Samuels and their growing family — Judi, Michael, and David — lived in neighboring Forest Hills.

Ms. Samuels’ undergraduate degree was in drama and speech. She was a speech pathologist, working in Riverdale — the ritzy part of the Bronx — for the marvelously named Bureau of Speech Improvement, part of the New York City public school system, and she also taught Hebrew to deaf children out of the family’s Queens apartment, and of course she was the mother of three children. “But her real interest always was in Jewish life,” Ms. Tischler said.

To that end, she also (did we mention her extraordinary energy?) helped her husband and volunteered at the synagogue. “Her Hebrew — and this was at a time when people were not getting good educations in Hebrew — was amazing, and so therefore was her ability to go into the sources. There was not a large cohort of people who could do that then,” Ms. Tischler said.

In 1968, the Samuels — Betty, Ruben, Michael and David, because Judi already was in college — moved to Englewood, where Ruben became the education director at Temple Emanu-El, working with Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. In the late 1980s, Ruben was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. He retired, and so did Betty, taking advantage of an early retirement package the school system conveniently offered just then. Betty devoted the next 18 years of her life to taking care of Ruben, to working tirelessly for the Alzheimers Association New Jersey, to doing a huge range of other volunteer work — and to creating the kind of work that she had not had the time to do when her responsibilities also included young children and a full-time job.

Before we get to that, though — the energy thing. “When he left his job, her husband got a severance package,” Betty and Ruben’s daughter-in-law, Julie Salwen of Teaneck, said. “It wasn’t so much money. But she listened to experts on the radio about how to invest in the stock market, and she managed to parlay that into a significant among of money.” As in, from the low five figures to the mid six. Did she know that was remarkable? “No,” Ms. Salwen said. “She just took those things about herself for granted.”

And then the art.

“The whole artist part of her just blossomed,” Ms. Tischler said. “It was how she occupied herself in those long silent years, taking care of a spouse with Alzheimer’s.” Her mother often displayed her art but created it more to be used or displayed by her family than to be sold. So soon her daughter’s house began to look like a craft museum, devoted to the art of one particular — and particularly gifted — artist.

One of the challah covers that graced tables on Shabbat and holidays
One of the challah covers that graced tables on Shabbat and holidays

“The process of becoming an artist for my mother was one of love,” Ms. Tischler said. “She really felt that she was expressing her soul through her art.

“Her Hebrew name was Batya, which means daughter of God, and her middle name was Gloria, which was Hadar in Hebrew. That was who she was.

“She had a very personal, intimate, and constant relationship with God. I really feel that her art was a way of expressing her relationship with God. It was extraordinary.”

One of the most prized objects that Ms. Samuels made was a huge chuppah; all her married grandchildren have stood under it. “My mother spent a full year making it,” Ms. Tischler said. “It is a huge square, made of 32 tiles, 8 by 11 inches. Each one is a completely different pasuk or idea from the Torah. The outside is green, to represent life, fulfillment, spring, and the inside is red, with two doves intertwined. If you stare at the doves for long enough, you can see that they spell out “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” — “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” — the quote from the Song of Songs that is the favorite of newlyweds across the Jewish world.

The chuppah is so heavy that it must travel with its own poles, because it is too hard to scrounge up any that are strong enough to keep it upright. It takes up an entire closet of her house, Ms. Tischler added. It will not be at the show at the Teaneck Jewish Center; it’s simply too big.

This quote from Psalm 118 is part of the Hallel service.
This quote from Psalm 118 is part of the Hallel service.

There were many things that Ms. Samuels could do well, her daughter said — among them, of course, was art — and a few things at which she did not excel. Among that second category was singing. But that clashed with Ms. Samuels’ love for God, her daughter said.

“My whole family are good singers, except my mother,” Ms. Tischler said. “She had the worst voice in the world.” But when the family gathered on Shabbat and holidays, they would sing. “My mother would sing so loudly that she would drown us out,” Ms. Tischler said. “I think that’s because she felt so stimulated by the words. My father had the voice of an angel, but my mother would scream, as if she had to make sure that God could hear her voice.”

Ms. Samuels adored chazzanut, Ms. Salwen said. “She was a bit of a cantorial groupie. She would travel to hear cantors. She was totally into it.”

Another of the skills Ms. Samuels did not have was cooking. “She had no interest in it,” Ms. Tischler said. “She thought it was stupid. You just could boil something and take it out of the pot and eat it.” Cooking, Ms. Samuels thought, was a waste of time.

But her Passover seder, which centers, after all, around a table, at which song, prayer, and story are woven together, but also on which actual food is served and from which it is eaten “was her masterpiece,” Ms. Tischler said. “It was not for the food. No one ever came for the food.

“But people would call her a year in advance to ask if they could come. That was because the singing was so good, and because at the end of the seder my mother would sing Chad Gadya in Yiddish. (In 2010, her family made a video of Ms. Samuels, sitting on a couch in a lovely black dress covered with colorful embroidered flowers, singing it. It’s on YouTube and easily googleable; the charm clearly comes through.)

“So at the end of the seder, nobody would leave,” Ms. Tischler continued. “They would hold their breath and wait. And she would sing it with complete gusto.”

Judi Samuels Tischler lives near Boston, and the Samuels’ youngest child, David, lives in Cincinnati. Michael Samuels and his wife, Ms. Salwen, live in Teaneck; Ms. Salwen knew Ms. Samuels since the mid 1970s, when she first began dating her son.

Another challah cover
Another challah cover

Ms. Salwen does not agree entirely with her sister-in-law about Ms. Samuels’ musical ability. The sisters-in-law agree that Ms. Samuels could not carry a tune, but Ms. Salwen said that because of her background as a speech teacher, Ms. Samuels’ “production was beautiful. It’s just that her pitch was not so good. She was aware of that when I first met her, but then she got involved in the Teaneck Jewish Center. There was a chorus there for a while, and she got involved with it. Somehow I think that until that point she was a little embarrassed to sing loudly, but at that point she had the enthusiasm to sing full out.”

Hence, Chad Gadya.

Ms. Salwen loved her mother-in-law. “She had a remarkable generosity in how she welcomed her children’s spouses into the family,” she said. She also was struck by Ms. Samuels’ energy. “She considered sleeping to be a waste of time,” she said. “My husband remembers her getting up at 5:30 in the morning and vacuuming.”

Ms. Samuels also sat on a number of boards. Those were positions she earned not because she was a major donor — she did not have the income that would have allowed her to be — but because she did so much work, with so much enthusiasm and creativity.

She “devoted herself to mitzvot and good works,” Ms. Salwen said. “She initiated the shul’s Project Isaiah drive. She used to gather huge amounts of food, and we would all sort it. She would try to give half of it to Shelter Our Sisters, and half to a more Jewish charity.

“She organized coat drives. She organized mishloach manot, where people from the shul would go to hospitals to deliver them. I remember particularly going to the psychiatric unit at Englewood Hospital. The people there were so grateful to have someone come to visit them.”

Ms. Salwen recalls that at her mother-in-law’s funeral, a woman of great standing in the community told her that “We all knew that Betty was brilliant. And that made me feel so sad, because I know that Betty would always tell me how brilliant this woman was, and how honored Betty felt to be on the board with her. How amazing it was that she could be on the board with someone so brilliant.” And here was this woman, paying this compliment back wholeheartedly — but too late for Betty.

Among many other honors, Betty Samuels is “the only person who ever became a life member of the board of the Teaneck Jewish Center,” Ms. Salwen said.

Betty Samuels threw herself into every activity that could benefit the shul she loved, the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
Betty Samuels threw herself into every activity that could benefit the shul she loved, the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

Ms. Samuels also had a talent for public speaking, she added. When she was in elementary school, “she won an award for reading an Emma Lazarus poem.” It was the most famous one, the one on the Statue of Liberty that begins “Give me your tired, your poor…

“She kind of wanted to be an actress,” Ms. Salwen added. “But of course you can’t really be an actress and be shomer Shabbes.” Ms. Samuels’ desire for a Jewish life outweighed her desire for a public one.

Her involvement with Jewish life took Ms. Samuels from the Conservative world to the Orthodox world, but that journey was neither straightforward nor definitive. “I was really impressed when I met her, because she and Ruby were the first people I knew who really believe in Conservatism,” Ms. Salwen said. “It wasn’t a compromise at all.

“But when she got older, she felt that the movement had changed. She thought that it became less focused on halacha. Her biggest concern was that it would cause more people’s children to intermarry, and not follow the religion.

“But she was very concerned with halacha about feminism, so actually for a couple of years she had the Teaneck Jewish Center have a shira chadasha minyan.” That’s a partnership minyan, where men and women sit separately but women are allowed to read from the Torah and to lead the parts of the service that do not require a minyan, in which women continue not to count. “She believed strongly in stretching the limits, where she could, of women’s rights within halachic Judaism,” Ms. Salwen said.

The Teaneck Jewish Center went through some very challenging times; Ms. Samuels was there through all of them, hoping for the brighter future that seems to have arrived, although she died before the most dramatic of them, the arrival of Rabbi Daniel Fridman. “She spent tremendous amounts of time trying to think of creative ways to keep the shul going,” Ms. Salwen said.

Ms. Salwen summed up her mother-in-law. “She was a very kind person,” she said. “She is one of the few people I know who I don’t think every intentionally hurt anybody ever. Most people get angry and try to lash out, but she didn’t. She never did.

“She took care of three unmarried great aunts,” she added. “One of them was at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and she would go there twice a week to check up on her. And she also led a Yiddish class there.

“She saved an aunt. She used to call her every day. Once she was in Boston, and her aunt didn’t answer. She got nervous and drove back down to New York. Her aunt had fallen and broken her hip. If Betty hadn’t been on top of this, who knows what would have happened to her.

“And Betty never let pain stop her from doing anything. I remember when she broke a rib — she was 85 at the time — and a week later, you would ask her about it and she would say it was nothing. She would brush it aside.”

Betty Samuels holds one of her works, which spells out some of her beliefs.
Betty Samuels holds one of her works, which spells out some of her beliefs.

Betty Samuels won many awards. She was honored repeatedly. “She was really well known in the local Jewish community,” Ms. Salwen said. “She was a local celebrity. It was like everyone knew Betty. And I think that says a lot, given the size of the local Jewish community.”

Ahrona Ohring of Teaneck, another longtime Teaneck Jewish Center member, and Ms. Samuels were good friends. In fact, she is behind the display at the shul, although she says that it was her husband, Milton, himself an artist and sculptor, who came up with the idea. “I started out with the idea of doing something much smaller, and he started making suggestions, and it just grew like Topsy,” she said. It’s the first such exhibit at the shul.

She grows wistful when she talks about Betty Samuels. “She was a wonderful friend,” Ms. Ohring said. “She was open and frank, and she had a sense of humor. She was imaginative, sometimes to the point of being nutty — she would run an idea past me, and sometimes I would say ‘That one’s just nuts,’ although most of the ideas were good ones.

“We had one long-running conversation. It was always about what was going on in the Jewish world. We both had an endless interest in it — local, in Israel, wherever. Of course we’d talk about other things too, family, but that really was the basis for it.

“It was an intense friendship,” Ms. Ohring said. “And now I really miss her.”

Who: Betty Samuels of Teaneck
What: Her needlework art will be on display
Where: At the Jewish Center of Teaneck, 70 Sterling Place
When: From September 18 through October 13
For more information: Call (201) 833-0515.

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