History Next Door
New Yorkers know better than to bother an actor, celebrity or otherwise famous person when they see one on the street (or in a restaurant, store, or park – not to mention stepping out of a taxi). As a New Yorker for fifteen years, I upheld this unwritten rule – even when it came to a famous neighbor. And now, realizing I missed my chance to get to know better a woman who changed an important aspect of life for thousands, if not millions, of people, I regret my reluctance to rebel against convention. I also now know that I allowed my own insecurity (unrelated in any way to Big Apple etiquette) to get in the way of my understanding history from someone who changed it.
For ten of my fifteen years in Manhattan, I lived literally next door to Elisabeth Bing, a pioneer in educating parents for pregnancy and childbirth and co-founder of the the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics (now Lamaze International). Bing, an immigrant of German-Jewish descent who was educated in England upon fleeing from the Nazis, lived for decades in an apartment building on West 79th St., where she operated a center/studio on the ground floor of the building, at which generations of Manhattanite new parents prepared for the birth of their children under her tutelage.
It is only today, years after I gave birth to my sons who are now teenagers and after doing some research, that I have come to fully realize the mark my elderly neighbor has left on social and medical history. As a young, busy, working mother, I was satisfied to leave my relationship with Elisabeth (she asked that we call her that rather than Mrs. Bing) at the level of friendly banter in the hallway outside the elevator and to an occasional visit by my children to her apartment to play with her cat. I knew that this compact, energetic octogenarian who always wore her frizzy white hair tied back in a pony tail and moved at a clipped pace, taught childbirth lessons. What I failed to realize was how influential she was, and how tenacious she had been in pursuing her interests and developing her field.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a writer and Jewish educator who blogs at Truth, Praise & Help: Musings of A Gen X Yiddishe Mamme. She lives in Palo Alto, CA.