My grandmother could have married a millionaire. Instead, she turned him down and accepted the proposal of a handsome shy scientist named Moses Legis Isaacs.
She loved relating how, years later, Yeshiva University president Dr. Samuel Belkin who knew both men told her, "Elizabeth, you chose well."
Elizabeth Klein Isaacs Gilber
Elizabeth Klein Isaacs Gilbert we grandkids called her Mema died on Dec. 17 at the age of 104. Although all mortals make their share of poor decisions, some extraordinarily good ones marked Mema’s long life.
To begin with, Dr. Belkin was right. The man who became my maternal grandfather was brilliant, pious, devoted, and wickedly funny in his quiet way. A bacteriologist at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, he became dean of Yeshiva College in 1940. After retiring in 1953, he helped establish the university’s Stern College for Women. When Dr. Belkin asked Dr. Isaacs’ wife to be dean of students, she accepted the job. The retired Y.C. dean became a chemistry professor at Stern and worked with his wife until they both retired for real in 1967.
In December of 1966, my grandparents invited me to spend Shabbat with them at Stern, where they lived on the top floor of the dorm on East 34th Street. Mema intended to take me, after shul, to see the magical holiday windows nearby at B. Altman and Macy’s.
But when we awoke, it was pouring. Mema, the daughter of prominent Manhattan Rabbi Dr. Philipp H. Klein and great-granddaughter of the renowned Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, was not the kind of woman who took synagogue attendance lightly. Rain or no, we were going to accompany my grandfather to shul at the college building several blocks away. She enveloped her 7-year-old granddaughter in plastic, and off we went. This proved a good choice, as I still recall the thrill of all those college students making a fuss over me.
Many of those same students got in touch when they learned of the passing of "Dean Isaacs." I was struck by the words used repeatedly to describe her: regal, refined, dignified, stately. Dean Isaacs did not take a motherly tack with her "girls." She chose to be a sophisticated, no-nonsense role model for women who would need to struggle to earn the respect of their male peers.
That strong, square-shouldered approach had always served Mema well. Polio crippled her foot at age 5, yet she learned to bike and dance. The anti-Semitic Dean Virginia Gildersleeve of Barnard College told Mema she would not be notified of her acceptance until after the start of freshman year so as to encourage her to choose a different school yet Mema stood her ground and entered the class of 19’3. Both her parents died of pneumonia just six weeks before her 19’6 wedding, yet she walked down the aisle with her head held high. When my grandfather died in 1970 it was the one time I saw my grandmother cry.
Mema later married a distant cousin, Joe Gilbert, when I was myself a Stern College student. Joe, a debonair Brit, asked her to come live with him in London. Again, a good choice. Though Joe lived only another four and a half years, he and Mema had a loving and fun-filled life within a warm social circle. When she called to tell me of his death, she mentioned that she was holding his hand when he died. Nobody was holding Mema’s hand at the moment of her passing, but my mother had been holding it, tightly, for a long time just hours before.
Mema spent many of her remaining years immersed in volunteerism. She was equally passionate about Jewish and civic causes from Mizrachi Women to Yonkers General Hospital, where she wore her pink volunteer smock as she rang up purchases in the gift shop. She, my mother, and I worked side by side in the Cong. Rosh Pinah Chevra Kadisha (burial society) of Westchester County in the mid-1980s.
On Wednesday, Jan. ‘4, Stern College is hosting a talk by Rochel Berman, another of the original Westchester Chevra members, whose book "Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial" just won a Jewish book award. Rochel, a longtime family friend, has arranged with the college to give out copies of the book inscribed to the memory of Dean Isaacs. She’s asked me to introduce the program with a few words about my grandmother.
I believe Mema would be delighted with this tribute. It brings together just about everything she held dear her beliefs, practices, family, friends, and the women of Stern College. I remember what an excellent speaker she was, and I don’t know if I will choose the right words as she always did. But just as countless games of Scrabble with her trained me to be a better player, her example inspires me to give it a try.