In 2012, Kathy Green published her memoir, Sailing in Kansas, a work she had begun some twenty years earlier, following a trip to Berlin to visit the city of her father’s youth and, as she writes in the book, “the grand city of [her] imagination.”
The journey to Germany was not an easy one nor was the journey towards the memoir’s publication. The manuscript went through numerous revisions and changed shape more than once. Ironically, pieces of this essentially American memoir were first published in Israel, in Hebrew, in the language Kathy, for as long as I knew her, loved and yearned to speak with greater fluency.
The title of the published memoir alludes to the sport her father and grandfather avidly pursued in Berlin, while also highlighting the sad irony of her father ending up in landlocked Kansas. “Sailing in Kansas” is also a metaphor for Kathy’s own youthful intellectual interests for which Leavenworth had no room as well as for later ambitions and dreams that would be increasingly thwarted by the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted her in the final decades of her life. Finally, the title highlights Kathy’s unique ability to regularly find humor in the unexpected and the paradoxical.
Kathy’s pride and joy at the book’s launch is one of the indelible memories I have of her final years. Speaking at that event, sponsored by Jewish Women’s Archive and Hebrew College, I noted that Sailing in Kansas, takes its place among a growing body of memoirs by contemporary Jewish women that provide multiple lenses on the lived life and felt experience of 20th century Jewish women and thus enrich understanding of 20th century Jewish life in America. By reflecting on her life in the context of her family of origin, the community of her childhood, and the historical framework of her time, Kathy deepened our knowledge and understanding of Kathy and the loneliness and losses that shaped her. She also expanded the data that form the stuff of history—shedding new light on growing up female, American, and Jewish in small town America, the immigrant experience, assimilation and anti-Semitism, and Jewish women’s religious needs and search for meaning.
Locating the start of Kathy’s religious search is not simple, but what is clear is that leaving Leavenworth gave her the freedom and space to explore her “increasingly apparent religious needs.” These led her into the orbit of the late Rabbi Zalman Schacter, a Lubavitcher Hasid who would later be among the founders of the Jewish renewal movement. Moved by his spiritual intensity and impressed by his openness to Western thought, Kathy recalled developing “a new way of thinking about Judaism and about my own religious life, surely under Zalman’s influence.”
Zalman introduced Kathy to Art Green and helped inspire the community and institution that Kathy and Art founded within months of their marriage. Called Havurat Shalom Community Seminary, in its first years it was a place for young Jewish men to engage in serious Jewish study and honest religious search while also avoiding the draft. But from the start Kathy quietly attended classes, engaged in study and pursued her religious search alongside other members of the community. And together with Art she turned their home and Shabbat table into a place and space for members, their friends and scores of other religious seekers to discover both old and new ways of welcoming, celebrating and observing the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.
When Art accepted a faculty position at University of Pennsylvania, the couple moved to the Philadelphia area. Sometime afterwards, Kathy took a position as principal of Gratz Hebrew High School in Wilmington, Delaware. Avocation turned vocation when Kathy became a parent and was drawn to the study of infancy, child development, and early childhood education.
In 1981 Kathy co-authored The Jewish Family Book with Sharon Strassfeld. Sharon brought to the book her considerable experience as co-editor of the groundbreaking Jewish Catalogue. Kathy brought to it a wealth of knowledge garnered while pursuing two master’s degrees in educational psychology and early childhood education. Two “old friends who were new mothers,” as they describe themselves in the book’s introduction, Kathy and Sharon shared a commitment to raising Jewish children and an understanding that while Jewish parenting was not unique, it had its particular challenges.
It is difficult today when there is a plethora of books and blogs on Jewish parenting to choose from, to appreciate how radical The Jewish Family Book was when it first came out. It was a book by parents full of questions for parents full of questions, a significant departure from the then common parenting books by the experts with the answers. But what really made the book stand out is the list of topics addressed within it, topics that the Jewish community had been reluctant to address. The list includes adoption, the single parent, when one parent isn’t Jewish, educating the special child, child abuse and “My son the Swami.” There is no attempt to portray the “normative” Jewish family or engage the fantasy that Jewish families are somehow exempt from the trends that characterize the changing American family. And the issues were addressed with an honesty that in those days was still rare.
Within two years of the book’s publication, and several years before her husband would be appointed president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Kathy joined the school’s faculty as professor of Jewish education. She also became a regular contributor to The Melton Journal. In its pages as well as in a number of other Jewish periodicals, Kathy addressed a range of topics in Jewish education, including “Children and the Midrashic Process,” “An Answer to the Question, Why Hebrew?” “The Uses and Abuses of Photography in Jewish Schools,” and “Toward Teaching Menschlichkeit.””
Kathy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s shortly before she and Art moved back to the Boston area in the early 1990s. But it did not stop Kathy, once she was settled in her new home in Newton, Massachusetts from throwing herself into a new project that brought together her two passions— Hebrew language and child centered education. Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) was just getting off the ground when Kathy joined the small group of women which included the school’s founder, Arnee Winshall, and professors Vardit Ringvald (Brandeis University) and Miriam Bar Yam (Boston University), that met regularly to discuss the school’s educational philosophy and how best to implement its educational vision. JCDS was poised to be the school of Kathy’s dreams if its teachers understood the importance of balancing a child centered approach with a curricular emphasis on Hebrew language and Jewish content. To assist teachers in their struggle not to sacrifice one for the other, Kathy began observing classrooms and mentoring several of the school’s teachers It didn’t take long before she was asked to join the school’s board and serve on the head support and evaluation committee. Recalling Kathy’s participation on the board, Arnee Winshall noted that “Kathy listened more than she spoke; but when she spoke she would cut through the babble and distill the essence of what the group was grappling with—inevitably using a Jewish lens to frame her point.” When the Parkinson’s prevented her from attending meetings regularly the Board voted to make her an honorary board member which she was till the day she died.
As the Parkinson’s progressed, affecting her movement as well as her speech, Kathy became increasingly aware that she was left with “only the written word” to transmit her story and the story of her family. With the help of a few dedicated friends and her lifelong partner, Art, Sailing in Kansas was finally published. In the closing pages of the book, reflecting on her opus, Kathy asks a Brontё- inflected question. “What, dear reader, is the book you and I are just now concluding, you as reader and I as writer?” The paragraph continues:
“When I first began writing, I was responding to and reflecting on a unique experience: my journey ‘back’ to Berlin. As time passed and more people read that original short piece, I was pursued by requests for more about Leavenworth. As I began working on the Leavenworth story, I came to be aware of deeper, more hidden, motives for writing. First, I have written for an age-old reason: to leave behind some sense of who I am, what was my special or unique identity, probably exacerbated by being an only child. Secondly, I have tried to do the same for other people: members of my family, friends, people of Berlin and Leavenworth. I mourn the loss of both of these, and my writing in a way is an act of mourning.”
For me, reading and rereading Sailing in Kansas has become an important way of mourning Kathy and of remembering Kathy—of recalling her sharp mind and generous heart, her wisdom and her wit, her courage and concern that we have her story as well as our own memories and stories of her to hold on to.