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Roslyn Zinn

Artist, Activist, Social Worker, Teacher
1922 – 2008

Born to Ukrainian immigrant parents in New York City, she was one of six children raised in a traditional Jewish home. Roz worked as a secretary in a law firm and, years later, received a degree from Goddard College. Roz became involved in progressive groups and causes and it was through these causes that she met her future husband, eminent American historian Howard Zinn. Married in 1944, over the next six decades the Zinns raised two children and pursued their individual careers, while working together for equal rights and social justice.

by Howard Zinn

My sadness about losing Roz is indescribable, but I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to have been married for sixty three years to a woman whose beauty, body and soul, always filled me with awe. Our love for one another, our friendship, our passion, never diminished through all those years. From the start we were drawn to one another by some deep spiritual connection, and by our common feeling for oppressed people everywhere. We both longed for a better world.

Roz was a more rounded person than I was. She didn't just love music, she played music. She didn't just appreciate art, she became a painter. She loved flowers, and planted them. She loved theater and took to the stage. She loved the sea and swam in the coldest of waters. A few weeks ago, I was in Wellfleet and the bay was too cold for me, but I went into it, saying to myself: "This is in honor of Roz."

She loved literature and was always reading. At the end of her bedside was a volume of Isaac Babel's stories. I had total faith in her literary sensibility, so she was the only one who read my writing before I gave it to the publisher. She would undoubtedly suggest that I shorten it. She loved people, and they loved her, instantly. Eddie Vedder told a colleague in Seattle of Roz's death and she wrote back: "When I met her I remember thinking if I could be anyone, this is the person I want to be."

When we went South to Spelman College, the young African-American women there felt an immediate bond with her, and she with them. As troubled as she was by the state of the world, she was irrepressibly happy. In the hundreds of letters I have received since her death, she is remembered always as luminous, smiling, joyful. She grieved for people in trouble, but loved to laugh. She loved her children and grandchildren and she loved other people's children and grandchildren.

Roz was the most selfless person I ever knew. I have a photo of an anti-war demonstration, and it shows a man being dragged into a police car but you can only see his back. Roz is at the scene, leaning towards it as if wanting to do something, an anguished look on her face. The man might have been me, but it wasn't. It was not someone Roz knew, but that didn't matter.

Two years ago she was badly injured coming up an escalator because she heard a cry behind her, instinctively turned to help, and fell. After she was diagnosed last July she decided immediately, firmly, that she would not have surgery or chemotherapy, that she would live out whatever time she had as peacefully and as enjoyably as possible. We spent August and part of September in Wellfleet, where she swam every day, where she read, listened to music, and we watched Red Sox games together. She said later that it was the happiest summer of her life. I stopped traveling and for the next six months we enjoyed a wonderful tranquility together. At the very end, lying in bed, she was concerned about me: would I have enough to eat? Would I be able to take care of myself?

She once spent a night in jail in Washington DC for protesting against the war in Vietnam. But she was not usually that kind of activist. Her contribution to the world transcended politics. It was her love of people, her kindness.

I wrote to our friend Alice Walker about Roz and said: "you're in California; you don't have to come to the memorial." She wrote back and said: "I'm coming. I love you and Roz with all my heart as you know. Can't wait to hold you and remind you she's not gone anywhere. I feel her and always see her wonderful luminous face and loving smile. Roz's smile made the plants grow."

I'm comforted by what Alice says. Yes, Roz's spirit is still here, her gift to us; her courage and kindness, a glimpse of how people might be in a better world.

Howard Zinn was an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright, best known as the author of A People's History of the United States. He died in January 2010 at the age of 87.

Memories of Roslyn Zinn from Eleanor Rubin

I first met Roslyn Zinn at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1968. I was part of a large group of people in a chapel at Boston University that had become a sanctuary for a soldier who had gone AWOL. The soldier spoke about his opposition to the war. People supporting the soldier spoke about the risks he was taking and about the bloodshed he was opposing. We, in the sanctuary, sang songs. I was much moved and eventually I was in tears. A stranger sitting near me noticed my distress and handed me a cup of water. That stranger was Roslyn Zinn. Later, a supportive group gathered outside the sanctuary. This group walked together with candles, maintaining the vigil. Walking next to me was Roz Zinn whose energy, verve and generosity connected me to her. We walked in step with each other, we talked, introduced each other to our husbands, David Rubin and Howard Zinn, both BU faculty members. We became friends. And from that night forth our friendship grew and grew. Over the years, we shared meals and conversations and other vigils and our families grew close. In the 90s when Roz began to paint, our friendship took on new dimensions because we each cared about and inspired each other's artwork.

Memories of Roslyn Zinn from Barry Crimmins

I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of the wonderful artist Roslyn Zinn. Roz was a brilliant, talented, wise and generous woman who brought an incandescent love and beauty to all she met. Possessed of a rare presence that both soothed and inspired, Roz was the woman with whom Howard Zinn spent almost his entire adult life. Roz and Howard shared 64 years of marriage and countless remarkable friends and experiences. She was Howard's primary and most significant editor. On a personal note, Roz Zinn was boundlessly kind to me, offering spirited artistic encouragement and compassionate and sage advice precisely when such support was most needed. I know dozens of other people can say exactly the same thing.

Roz Zinn lived a full and amazing life and she will be missed all the more for it. I know a big part of why Howard will carry on spreading truth with loving optimism is because he is imbued with so much love from Roz.

Elegy for Roz (Zinn) by Priscilla Long

I am remembering her colors, the ochres and golden browns and dark umbers -- earth colors. I am remembering her sense of order and her love of the sea, her love of the dunes of Cape Cod and the slow waves. I am remembering her attention to food and one particular slow gorgeous day on the cape with Roz and Howard and [artist] Elly Rubin and others, the feast that Roz prepared, and that she was reading Middlemarch and all the talk of Picasso and everything else under the sun. I am remembering her deep and abiding love for Howard. I am remembering the framed reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait I saw in her bathroom the first time I entered her and Howard's apartment in 1969 or 1970, how impressed I was with that, with her attention to images, to the feel of spaces. I am remembering her paintings and I look at them often, especially her own self-portrait and the portrait of Howard. I am remembering her graceful begonia turning its leaves toward the light. I am remembering all her kindness to me, her kind and loving attention to my poetry and other writings. I am remembering her yoga practice or at least that I knew she had one, and how it caused me to turn toward yoga in a small way. I'm sitting here in Seattle in the early morning thinking of Roz. I woke before the birds and I'm listening to the night. The distant hum of trucks on I-5, so far away they make a single soft sound rather like the hum of the universe. Closer in there's silence. Now the birds are waking and starting their singing. It is 4:30 a.m. I am thinking how Roz would have loved this moment too, the moment in the dawn when the light is just sufficient to wake the birds to their singing. I'm thinking of Roz and her exemplary life so full of love and creativity and her strong sense of justice, her sense of what is right. I am thinking of the steady, considered, intelligent, kind attention she gave to me and to so many others. She is somehow part of this day and always will be.

Roslyn Zinn's Artist's Statement: Introduction to "Painting Life" (2007)

After years as a teacher and social worker, I turned seriously to painting, which throughout my life had sparked and enlivened my spirit.

For the last twenty years, from representation to figurative-expressionism to abstraction, I've tried to explore what paint can do. The work is invested with my own emotion and experience, finding those aspects which have meaning for me, and with which I can identify. I take my subjects from everyday life and the surrounding environment, paying attention to what is real, to the everydayness of things and people around me, even when transmuted through the prism of abstraction. I have shown my work at the Radcliffe College Schlesinger Library, the Newton Art Center, the Powers Music School in Belmont, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Art Association, and the Wellfleet Public Library. My work is also out in the world in private collections, as well as with friends and family.

As I continue to paint, and the work accumulates, I donate paintings to the Art Connection of Boston, which gives artwork to qualified public and non-profit agencies, such as: homeless shelters, volunteer lawyers' projects, schools, clinics, elder services, shelters for battered women and their children, rape crisis centers. What I see in the world, so burdened and troubled, and yet beautiful in nature and in the human form, impels me to seek to create images that give the possibility of hope.

Roslyn Zinn
Full image
Activist and social worker Roslyn Zinn.
Photo: Howard Zinn

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Roslyn Zinn, 1922 - 2008." (Viewed on February 20, 2019) <>.

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