Montefiore center to preserve elders family stories for future

This spring, the Jewish social and recreational center will begin weaving oral histories into videotapes, audiotapes and pamphlets.

The center hopes the project will not only help pass on Jewish and family traditions, but will provide seniors with a sense of purpose.

"Now I may be one in a long line of blue-hairs, but I have been and am an individual," said Esther Merer, a Montefiore board member, former counselor and subject of a preliminary oral history.

Last week, she was interviewed by board President Jean Weiner. Both women are in their 70s, both have a background in counseling and together with about 10 other board members, they are developing a special questionnaire to suit the project. To practice, they have been taking each other's histories.

"The only questionnaires that exist are generic," said Weiner. "This will have a Jewish focus."

In the foggy courtyard of the California Street center, Weiner asked Merer several pages of questions: What was your first experience with death? Do you know any stories about what life was like when your relatives came here? What did you look like and what were you like as a child? Did you have a nickname?

The center plans to offer three levels of oral histories. The most extensive will involve professional videographers, editors and interviewers; costs will be determined in the coming months. Seniors will also have the option of just paying the center's costs and using volunteers to create the project themselves. Lastly, board members will offer advice, expertise and scholarship funds to those looking to create oral histories on a budget.

Early into the interview, Merer recalled a family story she hoped to pass on. "The katshke [Yiddish for "duck"] story," she called it.

"My grandpa had to divorce his first wife because he was very religious and she was barren. He couldn't bring himself to do it, so he put the get [Jewish divorce] under the duck's wing. When his wife went to pluck it, there were the divorce papers," Merer recounted.

Weiner had tales ready for her own oral history. She remembered her mother's warning, "Don't be like the plumber's wife."

The admonition was based on the story of a neighbor, a plumber who treated his wife horribly and remarried a "beautiful blonde" just months after his first wife's death.

"My mother said `See, Jean, never let a man take advantage of you. Value yourself. Don't give up everything for someone else. Don't be the plumber's wife."

Such stories don't just create a lively image of an ancestor, but serve to shape future generations.

According to center director, Matty Bloom, "values are handed down through humor, through these kinds of stories. It's not just saying, `Be a good girl.'"

The oral histories will also help mitigate the loneliness that plagues seniors, Bloom says. "It will add to their self-esteem to say, `I am somebody. I have had a full and wonderful life.'"