Phyllis B. Zasloff, 1930-2010

It’s Mom’s fault that I became a progressive.  My earliest political memory is her patiently explaining to 5-year-old me why I could not have my favorite fruit, grapes.   “We want the people who work picking grapes to be treated fairly,” she said.  I didn’t really buy it, but I trusted her, and of course she was right.  (Two years later, we had to boycott lettuce.  This was far less of a problem.).  The values were clear: play fair.  Be good to people who have less than you.  The earth is special, so don’t litter. Everybody is equal. (And of course, love your mother.).  She was right about those, too.

Mom was born about ten years too early.  In the early 1950′s, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study literature in Florence, specializing in Dante. Her friends from then tell me that her Italian was so good that Italians thought she was a native speaker.   She was one of the best students in the then-new UCLA Italian Department.  If it has been the 1960′s, she would have gotten her Ph.D. and spent her life studying the Divina Commedia.  But it was the 1950′s.  I once asked her, “why didn’t you get your doctorate?”  She replied, “Quite honestly, it never occurred to me.  It just never struck me that I could be a university professor.”  And since it was the 1950′s, no one mentioned it.  So she became a schoolteacher, entrancing years of students at Van Nuys High School with French, and Italian, and ancient, and even Latin (the last by staying one chapter ahead).

Then she settled down and raised two sons.  The marriage didn’t work, but that didn’t matter: she threw all of her energy into raising her two boys.  They weren’t perfect, but she did a hell of job.  My brother and I always got what we needed.  Once again, she was 10 years too early: in the mid-70′s, it started becoming okay to be a single Mom.  In the 1960′s, it still held social stigma.   Mom retooled her skills and became a librarian: that way, she could be home for us.  She was not a careerist: her career was devoting herself to her children. That didn’t stop her from opening up the world of literature to dozens, maybe hundreds of schoolchildren.

She also sensed that we needed a Jewish education.  My grandparents were from the generation that believed that you couldn’t be Jewish and American at the same time, and they chose American.  (And liberal, which she got from them: “Ein veld (this world), onder veld (the world to come), und Roosevelt.”).  So Mom didn’t know an Amidah from an Alienu, but she dragged us — sometimes kicking and screaming — to Hebrew School.  ”Imagine if you received a great treasure locked in an ugly, old, dirty box.  It’s not very attractive because of the outside.  But you would be crazy to throw away the box, right?  So Judaism is the treasure.”  Once again, she was right.

Always the house on Collins Street was there to come back to, through vacations, or joblessness, or breakups, or anything.  Bartleby the Mom: she was always there.  You can’t buy that for any amount of money.  She spent the last 15 years studying at the UCLA PLATO Society, teaching other retired people about The Inferno, or the Mahabarata, or Mozart operas.  And she loved it.  And her friends loved her.

And then she wasn’t there.  The first two strokes were in June, and she wasn’t the same.  Her heart went into atrial fibrillation, pumping clots into her brain.  My last conversation with her was with someone I barely recognized: too much of her brain had choked.  Her right knee was in agony — her nerves just laughed at the Vicodin.  So out came the morphine.  And then another major stroke.  And then she died.

So now she is gone.  But we thank God for the precious gift of memory, for remembering the little things she did, and the big things, and the good things, and the ridiculous things.  I love her very, very much.  And I always will.

Comments

  1. Molly says

    I'm sorry for your loss. I lost my dad in Feb. this year (and my mother has Alzheimers). It's difficult, I think, to express someone's essence to someone else who's never met them, but I feel after reading your reflection that I know your mother just a tiny bit. Thanks.

  2. larry birnbaum says

    Jonathan, my condolences. Your mother sounds like she had a big heart. Her son sounds like the son of a woman who had a big heart.

    May her memory be for a blessing.

    Larry Birnbaum

    Evanston, Illinois

  3. Vance Maverick says

    Let me add my condolences, Jonathan. (I don't believe I ever met her, but I'd be surprised if she didn't cross paths with my aunt Gretchen (then Fisch) at the UCLA Italian department.)

  4. Michael O'Hare says

    Well, this apple didn't fall far from that tree. She departed with a full load of naches, to your credit and hers. Thanks for posting this.

  5. fred says

    I'm sorry for your loss. Your Mom was obviously an extraordinary woman. Your memories and love are warm. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. James Wimberley says

    As my small tribute to your remarkable mother, I´ve corrected the mis-spelling in your fine post of the title of the literary masterpiece she loved. I trust she would have approved.

  7. Scientific Lurker says

    That was a beautiful and lovely tribute. May her name be remembered among the blessed.

  8. Barry says

    My condolences (from one who recently lost a brother and father, and whose mother is just hanging on).

  9. says

    Jonathan, I am so sorry for your loss. Your Mother sounds like a truly wonderful person whose spirit and positive impact on the world will continue through those fortunate enough to have known her, and be raised by her. Thank you for sharing this beautiful eulogy.

  10. AnnCarlson says

    Thinking of you and shedding a few tears for you and for the lovely, lovely tribute to your mom. xoxoxox

  11. Kathy Stone says

    Jonathan, I am so sorry for your loss. She sounds like a wonderful woman and a great mother. You have written a lovely tribute that conveys her spirit, her warmth, and her enduring love for her children. What a terrible loss.

  12. Joanna Schwartz says

    Jonathan – Thinking of you and your family. She sounds like a wonderful woman, who led a fabulous life. Thanks for sharing her stories with us.

  13. Clyde says

    Jonathan . . . I condole. I'm sorry you have to endure this loss. But your tribute is so lovely and touching. Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Sung Hui says

    Jonathan, my deepest sympathies to you and your family. Your mother sounds like a remarkable person with a capacious heart. Thank you for sharing your cherished memories of her. I know how painful losing a mom can be.

  15. Liz Cheadle says

    Jonathan, my heart goes out to you at this sad time. What a touching tribute to a phenomenal woman. May you find comfort in the days ahead in all your wonderful memories.

  16. Jerry Lopez says

    Jonathan, What a remarkably gifted, generous, and kind woman. She'll live on through you and through all of us who treasure big-hearted and open-minded sweetness. Here’s to your Mom and here’s to you. Un abrazo gran fuerte, Jerry

  17. Cara Horowitz says

    Jonathan, we're all thinking of you and of your family. I'm grateful that you were able to share some of what made her so special. Loved reading this post (and, like Ann, did so with tissues at hand). All our love.

  18. Iman Anabtawi says

    Thank you, Jonathan, for sharing these inspiring memories with us. With condolences, Iman

  19. Devon Carbado says

    What a remarkable woman, whose life story wonderfully contextualizes your own. Thanks for sharing, Jonathan–and thinking of you and your family.

  20. Kal Raustiala says

    Jonathan, so sorry to hear the news. Your tribute is very touching–my condolences to you and your family.

  21. Denise Simon says

    Jonathan, you have written a beautiful, thoughtful, and endearing tribute to a woman obviously well loved, and a life well lived. She shall live on, and live large, in your memory's eyes. My condolences to you and your family.

  22. Asli Bali says

    Jonathan, you and your family are in my thoughts. Thank you for sharing your beautiful reflections on your mother's life and her place in yours. With my condolences, Asli

  23. Lara Stemple says

    My condolences, Jonathan. Thank you for the reflection about how the politics of our time shape our lives… and how our lives shape others'.

  24. Raquelle de la Rocha says

    What a blessing your mother was. What a gift for us that you shared your beautifully sweet remembrance. Aleha ha sholem.

  25. says

    A testimony to a woman who created a life for herself and for her sons…

    We are all subject to the limitations of culture and resources.

    I admire your mother's strength and determination.

    thank for sharing her with us.

  26. Deborah Davis says

    Your mom touched my life so deeply as a librarian when I was in Elementary school. She honestly helped shape me into the woman I am today. I am proud and honored to have known her and offer my deepest condolences on your loss.

  27. says

    My deepest, most heartfelt condolences, Jonathan. There is no greater blessing in the world than a parent who puts a positive and inspirational set of values to their child.

  28. Lauren Elson Davis says

    Jonathan, It has been many years since I have seen either you or your mother but I think of her often when I reflect on my childhood and certainly every time I enter the library at my own childrens' school. She was a special lady who touched many people. You were lucky to have her as a mother and we were all lucky to have her as a part of our lives. Sending deepest condolences to you. Lauren

  29. ferd says

    I am so afraid of the moment in my life when my mother will die. God help us. Hard to breathe. Then we'll stay alive, in large part, to keep alive the memory of the love. God.

  30. Richard Steinberg says

    I am so sorry, Jonathan. I can only imagine the great sadness you are going through. My prayers are with you; I wish you comfort.

  31. Wendy Nathan Runyon says

    I went to Adat Ari El in the late 70s/early 80s, and the person that I have always remembered the most is your mother. She was a fantastic woman and librarian, and at such a young age, I looked up to her greatly. She helped inspire my passion for books, and we would all look forward to library hour when we got to see Mrs. Zasloff! I am so sorry for your loss. She was a great woman.

  32. Alita Lishness Sevin says

    Your Mother was my French teacher at Van Nuys Junior High School in 1960. She made coming to class an adventure. We never knew what to expect–a game, serious business–or a ouji board! But one thing we always knew–we would learn and enjoy it. It was because of Mrs. Zasloff that I continued with French through High School and College. I will always remember her fondly. I am so sorry for your loss. May her memory be a blessing.

  33. BevM says

    My heartfelt sympathy for your loss. Your post gives me just a little glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman. I can only imagine how proud she was of you. May your memories bring you peace.

  34. Mike Brown says

    Jonathan, that was a wonderful eulogy. I am one of the hundreds of schoolchildren whom you mentioned, for whom your mom really opened up the wonders of literature. She was always very generous to me in so many ways. She was a teacher who truly cared deeply about her students. She wanted them to learn and to appreciate learning. She tried to develop their character. As an adult, I enjoyed discussing not only books, but also politics with her (and not just because we tended to agree on so many issues). The world was a better place for Phyllis having been in it. I feel very blessed to have known her. My condolences and those of my family to you and David.

  35. Carole Goldberg says

    My heart goes out to you at this difficult time. May these beautiful memories sustain you. What a rich and satisfying life.

  36. Sharon Dolovich says

    Jonathan, I am so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful tribute to a plainly amazing woman. Thank you for sharing her with us.

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