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Lois Levin Roisman

Activist, Philanthropist and Writer
1938 – 2008
by Lisa Fagin Davis

My mother, a leader in Jewish philanthropy and a Judaic poet and playwright, didn't believe in God. She was not interested in organized religion. But she was a deeply and inspirationally Jewish woman.

Lois Levin was born in Brenham, Texas, into one of the oldest Jewish families in the state. As a teen, she was a leader in BBG and BBYO, and, as a young mother of three, in Hadassah and Sisterhood in Oklahoma City. But it was not until the 1980s, when she became the founding Director of the Jewish Fund for Justice in Washington, DC, that her Jewishness began to be truly expressed in a way that was most meaningful to her.

The Jewish Fund for Justice is a philanthropic organization founded on the principle that Jews have a responsibility not just to help other Jews but to help anyone in need. In a 1985 interview with The New York Times about JFJ, she explained its purpose this way: "The inner city was [immigrant Jews'] first home and we cannot turn our backs on it now that we live in the suburbs. Education was our ticket out of the ghetto and we must see that others have the same opportunity. Our grandparents worked in sweatshops, so we must care about the working conditions of laborers. We have known a Holocaust, so we must care about the endangered people of America, such as Native Americans."

This principle was reflected in her volunteer work as well. While living in DC, she helped start Silent Partners, a group that gave anonymous assistance to struggling schools in the District. Though not a Jewish organization, Silent Partners was built on the fundamental Jewish principle expressed by Maimonides – the highest form of charity is anonymous. In her later years, in New Hampshire, she started Voices for a Just Peace, a local group advocating a fair resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the mid-1980s, pursuing a lifelong casual interest, she began to take a playwriting course. As with all aspects of her life, she approached playwriting from a Jewish perspective. One of her first plays, Nobody's Gilgul, won the Outstanding New Play award at the 1993 Source Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., was anthologized in Making A Scene: The Contemporary Drama of Jewish Women (Syracuse University Press, 1997), and is frequently performed by local theater groups around the country. In the play, a thoroughly modern but assimilated Jewish woman, Lily, discovers that the Powers-that-Be forgot to give her a soul. So they find one for her – her great-great-aunt Eva, a Russian woman from the shtetl with old-country Orthodox Jewish values and traditions. The two women must learn to respect and even embrace each other's ideals and way of life so they can become a single, whole person. Her second play, Scenes from a Seder, explores the changing face of American Judaism through generations at the seder table. Her most recent play, The Linden Tree, was inspired by the life of Marion Pritchard, who rescued Jewish children in World War II.

In 1995, Lois and her second husband, Anthony Roisman (whom she had married in 1980), decided to give up DC for a quieter life in Lyme, New Hampshire. In a series of essays broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio, she described her transition from "city mouse to country mouse" with characteristically gentle, insightful humor. After they moved to New Hampshire, she continued playwriting but was encouraged by friends to pursue poetry. As a poet in her 60s, she found her true voice.

A wordsmith who thought carefully about meter and rhyme and word choice, Lois wrote dozens of poems about love and death and life and living, some funny, some ironic, some quite serious and thoughtful. Her poetry has been widely published, including in the journals Litchfield Review, Poetica and Light. At the time of her death, she was a research associate at the Brandeis Women's Institute at Brandeis University, and was completing a series of poems she described as "my dialogue with the tales of the Hasadim, those amazing wisdom stories that bejewel the Jewish mystical movement of 18th century Eastern Europe." Two weeks before her death on June 2nd, she learned that two volumes of her poetry would be published by Glad Day Books of Enfield, New Hampshire.

My mother believed in and lived a life dedicated to Tikkun Olam, the fundamental responsibility of each human being to do their part – big or small – to repair the world. As her husband put it, "Lois' life was centered on the inherent goodness of humans and inherent humor of life. Everything she did was based on the principle that if you could make people laugh about the human condition, then you could make them do something to improve it."

"In the Women's Balcony"

The Shul, Brenham, Texas
1944

That was the year my chin could finally
reach the railing of the women's balcony.
The Yom Kippur of the new blue dress,
the one that matched the bluebonnets.

Below me, the men huddled close, wrapped
in their white prayer shawls, shuttling left
to right, forward and back. They looked like
Bubbe's feather bed after I'd jumped in.

If I leaped over the rail, could float down
to their softness and Papa would turn just in time
to catch me. Zeide would be startled, but he'd
laugh and say Vos machstu, meshugee?

Then he'd let me pull his beard. I loved to pull
his mossy beard. Beside me at the rail, my Bubbe
on her wooden stool was making funny sounds
into her hankie, so I turned to stare. She was

talking to her ghosts again in those strange
syllables. This had happened many times, so
I knew how to make her better. Scrambling
into her soft lap, I smoothed her hairs where

they had come undone. She wrapped her
arms around me, her tears on my hair, dripping
to my new dress. We never spoke because
we didn't understand the other's words.

But I knew she loved my yellow curls, and I
loved the white ones hiding underneath
her bun. She rocked so softly and spoke again
to her ghosts. Then looking deep beyond my eyes,

Bubbe slowly wiped her tears from our faces. And
that was the moment Mamalosha appeared, looking
out at me from Bubbe's eyes. Shy at first, then
animated, she climbed out over the lids and leapt

into my life . . . . me in my bluebonnet dress, and my
chin that barely reached the women's railing.

"The Wood Thrush" (excerpt)

...I have sung so many songs
testing note and style and theme,
rejecting this for that, so like
the mockingbird, not mocking
certainly, yet certain that
the next will be my one true voice,
my rationale for nesting in
this verdant space within the range
of thrush's simple harmonies.
Like the mottled thrush, perhaps
my own plainsong will best be heard
as echo in the hour after sunset.

roisman.jpg - still image [media]
Full image
Lois Levin Roisman.
Photo: Judith Katzman.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Lois Levin Roisman, 1938 - 2008." (Viewed on August 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/roisman-lois>.

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