As book launches go it was exceptional: It was a love-in for a remarkable woman and her story — her intellect, compassion, commitment, values, and achievements.
Family and friends, former students, and colleagues, in social work, community activism, politics, feminism, and progressive Judaism came to the Temple Emanu-el-Beth Sholom in Westmount last month to salute Sheila Barshay Goldbloom, 93, and buy her memoir.
Several journalists showed up, most not to cover the story, but because they saw this event, the launch of Opening Doors (John Aylen Books, 305 pages), as a milestone in the life of an outstanding person.
Family values were always important. As her son Jonathan Goldbloom pointed out, when his mom arrived here from her native New York City to begin married life with Dr. Victor Goldbloom, she insisted the family leave the orthodox Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, with separate male-female seating, and move to the Reform Temple, saying: “I don’t want to go to a synagogue with my family where I can’t sit with my children.”
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the temple’s spiritual leader, noted that Sheila Goldbloom really listens to what people have to say, and in a group, while not the one to speak first, “almost always is the person who speaks most wisely.”
The phrase, “The Torah’s teaching of loving kindness is on her lips,” reflects Goldbloom’s life, Gruschow said, and the book opens a door to her heart, mind, and soul – as well as revealing her recipe for chocolate squares, which were passed around by her grandchildren.
It was that kind of event, but reading the book, which I devoured in a day and a half, was even more delicious! It is in many ways the story of a generation – Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City’s then teeming Lower East Side at the turn of the last century to replace their materially impoverished and insecure lives with something better for their children.
Those early days in Brooklyn tell us a lot about what made Sheila Goldbloom the person she became. Her maternal grandfather, Samuel Reich, and his brother-in-law “began with one pushcart selling paper bags that became two pushcarts” and grew into a thriving paper bag distribution business. But Reich’s heart was elsewhere – he was an inventor – and though he supported the family he did so modestly. Sheila’s father, Jacob Barshay, was the eldest of eight children and his parents, Saul and Nichama, ran a grocery store. Saul died young and his widow was left to run the store and raise the kids.
Esther Reich and Jacob Barshay married in 1924 and lived near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Sheila was born a year later. Her dad became a lawyer and both parents were ardent Zionists with socialist and progressive leanings. The family then moved north to Peakskill, N.Y. where young Sheila encountered a first taste of anti-Semitism: she sat next to a boy on the bus who quickly got up, saying “I can’t sit next to you because our priest says that Jews have horns.” Her mom later explained that the lad obviously knew nothing about Jews, had never met one, and added: “Living together in harmony is our only choice in the world.”
When she was ten, Sheila’s dad died of a massive heart attack at age 35. Her mom realized it was up to her to sustain the family, enrolled in law school and commuted to classes in New York City. Sheila’s mom also remarried, to her late husband’s law partner, Nathan Rothstein. Her retun to school was a display of courage and determination that is reflected in Sheila’s later life.
For college, Sheila chose the all-female Mount Holyoke College, offering a broad education and dedicated to empowering graduates so they can “make the world a better place.” It was at the school where she honed the mission of her life, which was to emulate that of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose early life was not without its challenges. Both her parents and a sibling died and young Eleanor ended up being raised by a non-nurturing maternal grandmother. And once she married soon-to-be president Franklin Roosevelt, she had to live with his domineering mother. As Goldbloom points out, “From this I learned the power of resilience, of making the most of the hand we are dealt, rather than fixating on its disadvantages.”
The book is replete with aphorisms that exemplify the life’s lessons Goldbloom is eager to pass on to readers. They are at least as poignant as the sayings of her idol, Eleanor Roosevelt, often cited in the book as relevant watchwords.
For example, Roosevelt once said, “In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
It was in that context that in the fall of 1960, Sheila, 35, married to a busy professional, and mother of three – Susan and Michael were in school and young Jon in nursery –decided to return to school. She enrolled in the McGill School of Social Work, graduated, began a rich and varied career and ended up on staff, mentoring a generation of social workers over a 30-year career. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “All of life is a constant education.”
Numerous family photographs going back generations illustrate the book. Two of the best anecdotes relate to General Charles de Gaulle and his Vive le Québec Libre call from the Montreal city hall in 1967. Did he really mean it? And why did Queen Elizabeth look so glum on one of her visits to our city?
As Goldbloom notes, to assuage a feeling of guilt about embarking on a demanding career while her children were so young, she began to bake cookies, to compensate for her lack of prowess in the kitchen.
There is so much in this book to inspire us as parents and grandparents and Quebec residents – read it, and enjoy Sheila’s recipe.
Sheila’s Chocolate Squares
1 cup condensed milk
1 ½ cups Graham Cracker crumbs
12 oz chocolate chips
1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts chopped
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch, square baking pan. Mix ingredients by hand in a large bowl. Pour into the baking pan, pat down, bake for 10-15 minutes, until the top is brown. Cut into squares while warm and remove from pan.