Jewish plays provide encore for teacher who wanted to retire

After a fulfilling, 30-year teaching career that extended from the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles to the sun-drenched shores of Maui, Marion Blanton was ready to call it quits once she discovered Marin in the mid-1980s.

She and husband Gerry had relocated here temporarily, as part of a teacher exchange. But after living in Maui for 17 years and witnessing its fall from utopia to tourist haven, the former Angelenos embraced Marin's beauty and sophistication with open arms.

"I had no intention of ever teaching formally again," says Blanton.

But through happenstance, she met one of the founding members of the Emeritus College of the College of Marin. The friend, whom Blanton had come to know in a library discussion program at Congre-gation Rodef Sholom, urged the former English teacher to reconsider her decision to retire.

"I was dragged kicking and screaming to the Emeritus College," Blanton admits, "and I've been there ever since." She has taught two to three courses a year since 1989.

Her newest, which starts Wednesday, Feb. 4 at the Novato campus, is a play-reading and discussion course called "Conversations with Literature: Seven Classic American Jewish Dramas."

The no-fee, eight-session class will cover plays written by Jews and about Jews, plays "that forever changed the content of American theater," according to Blanton.

Among the better-known pieces are Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man," Elmer Rice's "Counselor at Law" and Clifford Odets' "Awake and Singing." Produced between 1920 and 1960, the stories chronicle the wave of Jewish immigrants to America in the 20th century and the issues that ensued, such as generational conflict, anti-Semitism and the struggle for success.

"These were all mainstream American plays, either on- or off-Broadway," she explains. "Anyone 60 or older will know virtually all of them.

"These plays have a lot to say about Jewish life in America during the assimilation years."

Students will read dramatic scenes and discuss them.

It's a serious class, one that reflects Blanton's long-held passions: the need for Jewish connection and an interest in literature.

When she lived in L.A., Blanton taught high school English and belonged to a Reform congregation that has since become one of the largest in the city.

She and her husband moved to Maui in 1968 after he retired. "The reason for moving was the job for me," she says, referring to her position on staff at Maui Community College in Kahalui.

"It was an adventure — a new second marriage. We really wanted to get out of Southern California."

They thought they'd found paradise. "We had the laid-back, wonderful years of skinny-dipping and running around naked and so forth," she reminisces.

They also had the pleasure of participating "in getting a Jewish community going."

Though an ad in the Maui News inviting people to take part in High Holy Days services and a potluck, the couple discovered a small group of mostly Lahaina area merchants and professionals who were eager to get together more often for prayer and celebration. They managed to get "a box of Reform congregation prayerbooks, and we were launched!" she says.

"We'd meet for holidays and lifecycle events. One year we even had High Holy Day services on the beach.

"But as time went on, I began to miss the scene of institutional Judaism."

Also, budget cuts at the community college, resulting in a severely increased workload, began to erode the joy she had initially derived from her teaching job. It was also physically demanding, she adds, describing a hot and humid classroom, the sweat dripping from her arms.

The thought of retiring to the mainland became very appealing. Then, she continues, "fate dropped us into this area."

Blanton quickly made herself at home in Marinwood. At Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, she has served as adult education chair and head of the worship committee. She has participated in a Jewish book discussion group for seven years, and is three-time co-chair of that group.

The emeritus class she will teach is, as always, a topic of her choosing. She is hoping others will share her interest in the subject matter.

"Here in Marin we have a remarkable constituency of retired professionals," she says. Teaching "has just been a gas."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.