Theater buff Janet Zeimer put temple at center stage

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Back in 1960, members of a fledgling Peninsula Temple Sholom decided to stage a play to raise money for their young congregation.

Expecting just a handful of people to show up at the audition, organizers were floored when 75 would-be actors answered that call. The cast would ultimately represent almost the entire synagogue membership.

Enter Janet Goldstein Zeimer, a Stanford University drama major and founding member of the 5-year-old synagogue in Burlingame.

Zeimer wound up directing the congregation's first and so far only musical, while her husband, Robert, helped produce it. Called "The Gatke Game," the play was set in a long john factory and was a spoof on the musical hit of the day, "The Pajama Game."

"I think they worked on it somewhere in the neighborhood of nine months to a year," said Zeimer's daughter, Sally Cohen of Alamo.

Zeimer, a longtime resident of San Mateo, died March 26 at the age of 84.

Old-timers still remember the play as both a smash success and a great bonding experience for congregants.

"Everyone in the congregation was in the play," recalls Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, who joined the synagogue in 1956, a year after its founding. "It sold out at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center."

Raiskin, who jokingly refers to himself as the only synagogue member in the audience, said he was "very impressed" that a congregation that numbered some 60 families at the time could pull off such a production.

Cohen recalls that both of her parents got in the act. Her father, who died in 1997, helped stage the show while her mother assumed the job of director, choreographer and costume designer.

"They were both very talented," said Pat Mendolson, a founding member of the congregation who also served as the writer and producer. "It was a labor of love."

The performance was a sell-out that drew an audience of 1,600, according to Mendolson.

Evidence of the production was scattered throughout the Zeimer home for months. "The whole house became a production shop," Cohen recalled.

Zeimer, who worked as a claims and benefits administrator in her husband's insurance office, was a native of San Francisco but grew up in Chico.

Her father, J. Oscar Goldstein, practiced law and was the founder and lay rabbi of the first synagogue in that community north of Sacramento. Raiskin said Zeimer once told him that the family "had a Torah in an ark in her home and people came there to pray."

After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Zeimer attended what was then Chico Junior College for two years before entering Stanford. In addition to directing the synagogue play, Zeimer performed in many amateur productions at the Peninsula-based Hillbarn Theatre.

The mother of three "was the mom that all of my friends and my sister's friends came to talk to," said Cohen, who recalls her mother sitting on the floor engaged in deep conversations with her teenage friends.

She was a traditionalist when it came to services at her Reform congregation. "The old Union Prayer Book was always in her hand," said Raiskin, who explained that Zeimer preferred the more majestic language — "the thees and thous" — of that book to a newer version adopted by the rest of the congregation.

Zeimer, who worked part time in her husband's company until she was 83, was "close to fanatic about needlework" and was a passionate gardener and orchid fancier, her daughter said.

She also was an avid Stanford Cardinal fan, who attended more than 50 Big Games. "She went to games up to the 2001 season," Cohen said. "We bought her a wheelchair for the game. She insisted on red."

In addition to Cohen, survivors include her other children, Jody Lawson of Salt Lake City, and Robert Zeimer of Tracy; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

She was interred at Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, where services were held Sunday. Donations may be made to the Stanford Buck/Cardinal Club, Arrillaga Center, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA 94305, or a favorite charity.