Joan A. Larsen

Son, Nils Larsen, and husband, Ron Larsen, establish the Joan A. Larsen Endowed Summer Student in the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program.

Joan A. Larsen

When Joan A. Larsen passed away in late 2021, she left behind several journals and years’ worth of correspondence with her son, Nils. Joan’s husband Ron and Nils read these journals and letters, which she began as a young woman, and were able to experience again the power of Joan’s lifelong passion for Jewish culture, history, and religion.

“When you read her journals from her early twenties onward, you realize Judaism was always something present and important,” Nils recalled. “Whenever she would return to visit New York or experience something new she would comment on or seek out Jewish culture, Jewish museums, art, food, and things like that.”

It was that love, combined with her deep passion for social justice and education, that inspired Nils, a business consultant from Chicago, and his father, Ron, a mathematician and potter from Canton, NY, to establish the Joan A. Larsen Endowed Summer Student in the Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. “If you think of the formative and important place that Judaism played in her life, her care for voices that struggle to be heard and remembered, and her passion for education, there is no better way to honor her life than to contribute to future generations’ ability to continue to learn more about Judaism, including the language,” Nils said.

Joan Audrey—or Chaya Zelda—Bricker Larsen was born in the Bronx on Yom Kippur (September 22), 1939. Her parents’ families immigrated to the United States from the Vilna area, and she grew up hearing Yiddish at home. She was a precocious student; after attending public high school in the Bronx she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from The City College of New York and a master’s degree from Stanford University. After teaching biology for several years, she returned to school and received a master’s degree in library science from the State University of New York at Albany and became the head of reference and bibliographic instruction at St. Lawrence University’s Owen D. Young Library. At St. Lawrence, in addition to her active role at the library, she was a founding member of St. Lawrence’s innovative First Year Program, and she served as the coordinator of Jewish Student Life on campus for many years, a role she continued even after her retirement in 2011.

Nils and Ron are not sure how Joan first discovered the Yiddish Book Center—whether through her work as a librarian, her interest in Jewish culture, or some combination of those and other things—but Nils said it was clearly a natural fit. “As a librarian she embodied the People of the Book and was a supporter throughout her life of what the Yiddish Book Center was doing. The Yiddish Book Center is an amalgamation of the things she cared deeply about throughout her life—learning, education, empowerment, and Judaism.”

When she passed away in December 2021 after a short battle with cancer, Nils and his father decided that a contribution to the Center’s educational programs would be a fitting tribute. “It’s about education and literature and youth and Yiddish and Judaism—it inscribes her life,” Nils said. “I think my mom had a fear that she hadn’t done enough to give me my heritage. I know she was wrong in that regard; she gave me so much more than she ever appreciated, and this donation is a way for her to keep providing that gift to other people.”