The Yiddish Book Center's

Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Helena Lipstadt's Oral History

Helena Lipstadt, poet and garden designer, was interviewed by Agnieszka Ilwicka on February 19, 2013 in Hollywood, California. Helena Lipstadt, poet and garden designer, was interviewed by Agnieszka Ilwicka on February 19, 2013 in Hollywood, California. Helena was born in a DP camp in Berlin in 1947. Her family came to America in the 1950s and settled in rural Connecticut, where they became chicken farmers. Used to an urban lifestyle in Eastern Europe, as soon as they could they moved to New Haven where her father bought a candy store. Helena remembers being confused by American Jews, who were strikingly different from her traditional European family; her community of friends was comprised of Holocaust survivors. Helena's mother lost her faith during the war, and she attributes her love of ritual and tradition to her father. Although Helena has no children she is close to her nephew and tries to pass on some of the ritual and history to him. Helena describes the delicious foods—blintzes, crescent cookies and borscht—that her mother made for the Jewish holidays. The survivor community became their family although they had many different social and cultural milieux. Helena recalls having many political fights with her father, who was much less liberal than she was. In the late ‘60s, Helena went to a small women's college in Massachusetts which was not a good fit. She got involved in music and anti-war activities and was part of the generation that believed it could change the world. She left college and did not return until she was in her forties when she also pursued Reconstructionist rabbinical studies. In the late ‘70s Helena became involved in the feminist movement and lived a lesbian lifestyle. She moved with a women's collective to rural Maine where they built their own houses with virtually no experience. Looking back, she can see how her sense of social justice came from her experiences as the child of survivors. Now at sixty-six, Helena has a smaller focus—she believes that we change the world one person at a time. She still feels that her Eastern European Jewish heritage and love of Yiddishkayt are her home base. She talks about the commonalities between queers and Jews, the longing of immigrants for their homelands and her involvement in the Gwoździec project. Through this project, artists and builders built a replica of a seventeenth century wooden synagogue in Poland which will be installed in the POLIN museum in Warsaw. Helena now celebrates Shabbos with friends in Los Angeles every week. She feels that Jewish ritual enriches and deepens her life and that sharing it with others is a big part of what makes it meaningful. She wishes that Yiddish was as central to her life as it was in the past. She ends the interview by singing "Schnirele, Perele", a beautiful song about the coming of the Messiah.

This interview was conducted in English.

Helena Lipstadt was born in Berlin, Germany in 1947.