China-born author Isabelle Maynard dies at 78

Isabelle Zimmerman Maynard, a social worker-turned-artist and author, died July 3 in Emeryville. She was 78.

Maynard was born in Tientsin, a city in northern China, in 1929, to Sophie and David Zimmerman, Jews who fled the Russian Revolution. Memories of her childhood later became the book “China Dreams: Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin,” which was published in 1996. The story examined how she and her family lived in China with other Russian Jews who lived between worlds, holding passports stamped with “stateless.”

In 1996, she told the Jewish Bulletin (now j.) that Jews like her “were in China, not of China.”

Isabelle Zimmerman came to the United States when she was 19. She and her mother traveled by boat to San Francisco. Her father followed a year later.

Maynard earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from U.C. Berkeley, and did social work for 30-plus years. But her definition of work extended far beyond the typical 40-hour workweek.

“She had never-ending energy and passion,” said her daughter, Judy Malings. “Everything she did, she did 100 percent … She taught me to pursue my passion, too. Whatever I did, she supported.”

Maynard raised her only child in a counterculture home typical of Berkeley in the ’60s. “It was a very artistic, creative, intellectual environment,” Malings said. “My parents would hold music salons and literary events in the house.”

Maynard hated the word “hobby,” but vigorously pursued many, including art (in all forms), travel and swimming. As a member of Talespinners, a San Francisco theater group, she learned to write plays based on oral histories. She decided to write about the Golden Gate Bridge, of particular significance because she had passed under it as an immigrant. While searching for a way to personalize the story, she learned about Al Zampa, an ironworker who fell off the bridge, broke his back and returned to work. Her interviews with him became “The Ace,” which was performed at the Life on the Water Theater in San Francisco in 1987.

Retirement did not mean rest for Maynard. In the past year alone, she organized monthly musical and literary programs at the Emeryville Senior Center, helped put on “The Celebration for Creative Aging” and began composing on the piano.

She died of cancer, even though she had beaten the disease in her late 30s, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She is survived by her daughter, Judy Malings, son-in-law Charlie Malings, grandchildren Cassie and Benjy Malings and stepgrandson Jesse Malings, all of San Diego.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Cancer Society Foundation, California Division, 1710 Webster St., Oakland, CA 94605 or to the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, 2090 Kittredge St., Berkeley, CA 94704. Please specify “In memory of Isabelle Maynard.”

A celebration of Isabelle’s life will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the Watergate Clipper Club, 5 Captain Drive, Emeryville. For directions, call (510) 654-4040.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.