I opened the paper Wednesday morning and, as is my macabre habit, went right to the obituary page, first scanning the “news” obituaries and then the small print memorial notices. I noticed the name Miriam Levy. There are probably dozens of Miriam Levys in New York, and over the years all of the ones listed have been the wrong ones — or, maybe, the right ones. Not this time. “Beloved wife of the late professor Napthaly, mother of Nicky…” This was the Miriam Levy I taught with for two years at the Gardens Nursery School-Kindergarten in Morningside Heights almost thirty years ago, during the four years I was a very green worker with two-and three-year olds. I found myself in tears.
What a strange team Miriam and I made, paired as “co-teachers” in the egalitarian policy of this very progressive school. I was a 20-year old long-haired Ivy Leaguer, a fresh refugee from a small-town Catholic boyhood studying at Columbia nearby. She was a German-Jewish refugee I judged to be around 50 — about the age I am now — married to a Talmudic scholar in Washington Heights, a devout practitioner of orthodoxy — wig, ritual baths, out of school for a dozen unheard-of (not only to me, the Rhode Island goy, but also to a lot of less observant Jews!) religious holidays in the spring and fall. It was unusual for a woman in her situation to be working at all, much less with kids from the projects.
I had hardly met any Jews in my earlier life, much less one so exotic to me. We had constant talks about religion, politics and families — she had three kids in their teens — while watching our three-year old charges, pushing playground equipment around, and making snacks. She was deeply respectful of every other human being, starting with those we were surrounded by, barely out of diapers. She also had a fine sense of humor and a well-concealed taste for fun, which of course I tried to indulge. I will never forget her confiding in me, as if it were the deepest darkest secret, the time she rolled down a hill one spring day when no one was looking.
Miriam and I kept in touch for a few years after I left Gardens in 1978. I heard she moved to Israel after her husband died, about twenty years ago. I am not a person who loses touch with people I care about, but I lost touch with her, and often thought of trying to re-connect. When I saw the memorial notice, it said that shiva was being observed until Sunday, and the address given was the apartment she lived in with her family when I knew her in the mid-seventies, on Fort Washington Avenue. So this morning I got on the subway and went there.
I’d never been to an Orthodox shiva, and it was a little intimidating at first. You let yourself in, the mirrors are covered, and the mourners are wearing clothing they have torn in a gesture of their grief. About ten people were sitting on chairs in a circle in the living room. They looked up when I came in, but no one made any effort to greet me or even ask who I was. I sat down. One man was sitting on the floor in front of my chair. I said who I was, and that I had worked with Miriam at Gardens, and he smiled and told me he went to kindergarten there. It was her son Jackie, now, it seems, a religious scholar like his father. At the other end of the circle two middle-aged women nodded — her daughters Nicky and Rae, who remembered me and have even, it seems, followed my life a bit thorugh news clippings.
We talked for a while as people came and went. Miriam never moved to Israel. She remained on Fort Washington Avenue all the intervening years. When she left Gardens, she went to another school to work with pre-school children, and, remarkably, worked there steadily until she had a heart attack last week. Though Jackie said, with a smile, “we weren’t allowed to discuss numbers” with her, she must have been well into her seventies. He showed me a recent picture of Miriam with one of her sixteen grandchildren, and I had to agree she hadn’t changed much in the many years since I worked with her.
At one point when I was there, an ancient creaky woman trudged in and sat down, with great difficulty, among us. She was accompanied by a younger black woman who seemed to be an attendant. There was much speculation about who the old woman was, and it turned out to be a Mrs. Ettelman who once had a store in the neighborhood. What made an impression on me was the way Nicky and Rae went out of their way to include Mrs. Ettelman’s attendant in the discussion — complimenting her on how well-cared for her charge was, thanking her for coming. A very small touch of humanity, but very characteristic of Miriam, and for a moment she sparkled for me in her daughters. Miriam Levy had a very great effect on me in a formative period, and it will be a while before I get over my regret that for so many years she was not very far away but I missed the opportunity to keep her in my life.