Ours was an unlikely friendship. I, an outspoken New Yorker, my friend Emily Shain Mehlman, a proper Bostonian. I grew up in a Ladino-speaking household and thought everyone ate leek frittatas and had huevos haminados for Passover. Emily made the best brisket and kugel in the world, and her Yiddish always left me in awe. As active members of Temple Israel in Boston, we welcomed the Mehlman family to our midst, and Emily and I became fast friends. Our children were the same age and our lives became immediately intertwined as her husband Bernard became Senior Rabbi of our congregation.
Being Emily's friend was a blessing. She wove goodness into our community from the day she arrived during a massive blizzard and had to house the stranded moving crew in her basement. She knew instinctively what each of her friends and family needed, and provided a quiet solution for each of their needs. Sometimes it was a ride to the doctor, other times it was sharing her famous recipes, whether gefilte fish, hamantashen, Jordan's blueberry muffins, or her husband's favorite sauerbraten. She knew how to get out every stain imaginable and hosted dinners for family, friends, and guests from all around the world.
Her communal activities ranged from her weekly stint as Operator #27 at Call for Action, a local radio program, where weary callers sought help for a myriad of intractable problems, to her role leading tours at the Boston Athenaeum, pointing out every imaginable detail of art, architecture, and Boston history.
She integrated a legion of new immigrants into communal life in Boston, providing everything from bedding and cooking gear to driving lessons and trips to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. She savored their amazed expressions as money poured out of the wall during their first ATM experiences or as they roamed a local supermarket and were confronted with choices beyond comprehension.
When we created the "Women Whose Lives Span the Century" oral history project and exhibit with the Jewish Women's Archive, Emily was front and center as we sought to honor and gather the memories of Temple Israel women over the age of 80. She had already completed many oral histories for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and was a seasoned interviewer. I had the privilege of conducting one of the interviews with her and was awed by her ability to elicit the intricate threads of our narrator's life with her direct and no-nonsense manner.
She was born and bred in Boston, educated in the Boston and Brookline Public Schools and at Brandeis University. For those around her Emily served as a compass, both figuratively and literally. She knew how to help her community steer a clear course, guiding us with her own impeccable honesty and tenacious personality. You could also ask her for more practical directions and arrive with more clarity than mapquest can provide. Whether it was a bone marrow drive to help a friend, or taking her friend Lizzie, a young woman with Down syndrome, for a manicure, she knew how to win hearts and how to persistently build community.
She was truly a remarkable friend, mother, grandmother, wife, sister, and community member. For me, her loss recalls the words often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, "Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart." For all of those privileged enough to have been touched by her, her memory will remain an inspiration.
Emily Shain Mehlman died on February 11, 2006.