Elsa Dorfman

1937 – 2020

by Pamela S. Paternoster

Elsa Dorfman is best known as a photographer who used a large format Polaroid camera to make 23 by 36 inch portraits of a wide range of individuals, from celebrities such as Allen Ginsberg, Andrea Dworkin, Bob Dylan, and members of the Big Apple Circus, to children, families with their pets, babies, and couples. Elsa also created photo essays including one on survivors of breast cancer, and a series of 32 Jewish women accompanying JWA's first oral history project (in partnership with Temple Israel of Boston), Women Whose Lives Span the Century. Her work can be found in the homes of her subjects and in many museums around the country, including the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which held an exhibition of her self-portraits in early 2020. Elsa was born in Cambridge in 1937, grew up in Roxbury and Newton, and returned to live in Cambridge for more than 50 years, until her death on May 30, 2020.

I used to see her walking with her son, Isaac, and their rescued greyhound. That’s the kind of person Elsa Dorfman was. She rescued animals and children. In a curious, disarming manner, Elsa had concern for all of her neighbors. She had a way of making everyone feel as though they were her best friend.

I was one of a team of educators at our neighborhood school where Isaac was a student. When he was small, she dropped him off every morning, and every afternoon she came to fetch him. When he was in the fifth and sixth grades, I was one of his teachers, and Elsa often visited with us in the classroom after school. Anything we needed, she and her husband, Harvey, provided. Extra paper, tissues, a copying machine. They took in stray kids, providing a bed, a meal, a shoulder. Elsa and Harvey were loved by everyone in the school.

When Isaac was in kindergarten, Elsa decided to make an annual class portrait. Every year until graduating the eighth grade, the kids walked the few blocks to her studio and had their group picture taken. She always had treats and showed the kids around the studio. To the delight of the school community, after a party celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its founding, Elsa invited everyone to see the pictures she had taken over the years. She became important to many of the kids in the photographs, such that they returned to visit her during high school and through to adulthood, some even assisting in the studio.

Elsa advocated for the safety and health of children. When a Cambridge child was mistreated at a local hospital she intervened, resulting in her spending a night in jail. Her arrest made the papers, and she succeeded in bringing attention to the issue. The case against her was ultimately thrown out.

When we met in the neighborhood, Elsa was always cordial and after a while we became friends. We shared our children’s bar mitzvahs, an engagement party, and other festive occasions. She was wonderful to my son Aaron, occasionally putting him in front of the camera for portraits. She and Harvey gave him his first bicycle and hockey gear, knowing full well that I hated hockey. For a while Isaac was my mother’s helper and a few days a week after school, he came to my house and played with Aaron while I took care of household business. Elsa sometimes stopped by on those afternoons and we caught up with the news. When Aaron moved to New York to pursue an acting career, she and Harvey attended some of his plays.

Elsa and I had an email correspondence over the years. Elsa’s letters echoed the rhythm of her speech, and I can hear her voice when I read them. The emails reflect pride in Isaac, sending me news of his latest achievement. Sometimes they were mundane; a referral to a gardener or an electrician. Once in a while they were magical; a poem chronicling her day that included a reference to my visit with my new puppy and my kvelling about Aaron’s starring role in a play. I have a stack of her postcards that I cherish.

Elsa had many gifts and she shared them widely. To the public she was an icon who shared her art, and to her friends she was someone who could be counted on to share her heart. With Elsa there was no pretense. She was sincere, had a strong sense of justice, and loved to laugh. She was modest, curious, and generous. Her devotion to Cambridge, her neighborhood, and her neighbors will be missed.

Topics: Photography
1 Comment

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Elsa lovingly portrayed 3 women who were over 80 years old for the pilot project for JWA. It took one phone call and she generously offered these fantastic portraits which were one the centerpieces of this priceless project. She donated the cost of the whole project and it was a true gift of her love and genius to nuilding an exhibit which launced the Archives.

Self-portrait of Elsa Dorfman, April 13, 2007, New York City. Courtesy of Harvey Silverglate.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Elsa Dorfman, 1937-2020." (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/weremember/dorfman-elsa>.


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