Elders share memories in ex-Brandeis teachers book

A golden memory, it's not, but it is one of the details that she shares about her life in Steven Friedman's new book, "Golden Memories of the San Francisco Bay Area."

The book, which the San Rafael resident edited and compiled, contains the oral histories of nine Bay Area residents.

Friedman's interest in oral history was sparked when he was looking for a topic on which to write his master's thesis in anthropology. His initial interest was in how athletics shaped the identity of elderly people, and he began to interview potential subjects. But one of them, Bill Sinai, was a natural storyteller with such fascinating stories, that the then 92-year-old retired dentist from Oakland became the sole subject of Friedman's thesis.

"He talked for an hour before I even asked him a question," Friedman recalled about the man whom Friedman later considered his surrogate grandfather. Sinai has since passed away.

A teacher of Jewish studies at the Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael for many years, Friedman often took his students to Drake Terrace, a nearby retirement residence. He thought people who had had first-hand experience with history would enrich his students beyond what they could read in their textbooks.

And then Friedman decided to volunteer there. In 1993, he began leading a weekly session on life history at the retirement home.

Each week, he sat with a group of residents, and just by asking questions, urged them to recall pieces of their past that had long been dormant.

While at first the participants were reluctant to talk — especially about themselves — the session, called "Tea and Talk," soon grew more popular than the tai chi classes, Friedman writes in his introduction.

Friedman admired the Oscar-winning anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, who created a short documentary on the elderly, entitled "Number Our Days." "I wanted to do what she did, meet with elders as a way as using my master's [in anthropology], and I also wanted to give as a volunteer," he said.

At first, Friedman thought his discussions at the Drake could be the subject of a book. But then he received an e-mail from the professional group Association of Personal Historians, of which he is a member.

The organization was interested in historical portraits of different geographical areas of the United States, as depicted by the personal stories of those who lived there.

In "Golden Memories," the nine people Friedman features spent most of their lives in San Francisco or its outskirts. He wanted the book to reflect the ethnic diversity of the region, and in addition to his two Jewish narrators — Sylvia Farber and Stohl, both of whom he knew from the Drake — the others are of African-American, Irish Catholic, Latino, mixed and Japanese backgrounds.

What his two Jewish women subjects had in common, Friedman found, was that although both had become fairly assimilated Jews, when they talked about their childhood, it was the specifically Jewish memories they would retell. "Neither of them identified so strongly throughout their lives, but it was an important part of their lives, in reminiscing with me," said Friedman.

Stohl married her husband in 1941. They eloped, keeping it a secret from her family because she feared their disapproval because he wasn't Jewish. Her family only found out when she got pregnant.

Some of Farber's most vibrant memories are of shopping for Jewish food, and attending events at Congregation Sherith Israel and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Among the nine subjects, the one thing they had in common was family.

All of them said one parent was a major influence in their life, and that parent played a major role and was moral guide for people in the book.

Friedman said he heard such vivid stories about their parents, with Farber recalling her father's stories about living in a tent in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake.

Friedman is now a stay-at-home-dad, but he has started a business on the side recording people's stories for their families and can be reached at [email protected] He continues to be fascinated by people's lives.

"A lot of people asked me, did you screen" the subjects of the book? Friedman said. "I was on a deadline so I didn't have that luxury."

While it was true that his subjects were particularly "loquacious," Friedman said, "I believe that everyone has a story. You just have to find it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."