CYC-Online 102 JULY 2007
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Growing up in an orphanage led to success

Katherine Augustin

“I lived in an Indian boarding school for five years of my life, and after that I became a nurse and worked for many years, mostly as an educator,” I told David Epstein, as we introduced ourselves.

“I, too, lived in a boarding school,” Epstein said, as I listened intently. “Mine was the Home for Jewish Children in New Haven, Connecticut. I grew up to become a veterinarian.”

I had never met anyone other than Indian people who had grown up in a boarding school, much like myself, so I was extremely interested in what he was telling me.

It was a warm, humid day in mid-July when about 15 of us gathered in the home of a fellow poet for brunch, jazz and poetry, when I sat next to this man whose book I would soon be reading.

I told him I have fond memories of my many relationships with Jewish people throughout the years. I once studied Judaism with a rabbi and found that a lot of Jewish culture is similar to mine. I have been to seders, weddings and bar mitzvahs and even went to New York City a couple of years ago to attend a bat mitzvah “and I danced my legs off. Without even taking a breath, I further recounted that I was given the tremendous honour of lighting two candles on the menorah at the last Hanukkah festival. About this time, he reached into a bag and handed me the book he wrote, Home: Life in the Jewish Home for Children.

In his book, he recounts how his mother died when he and his three brothers and sister were very young and his father had no choice but to place them in an orphanage during the Great Depression. With five children to care for, his father occasionally worked for the WPA, digging ditches for 10 cents an hour. During this time in the history of America, many men were out of work and depended on soup lines for their meals. It was a terrible time to be alive for a lot of people, especially in the cities. On our Pueblos, we grew our own fruits and vegetables, picked wild spinach and tea and raised sheep, cows and chickens for sustenance. We survived on that and hardly realized we were poor.

The orphanage provided David with not only good food but also a well-rounded education, music and art, with much emphasis on culture, tradition and the Hebrew language. I was almost envious of this, because the object of my boarding school was to dissolve all of the above.

He writes about the history of the home, its land and building. All that remains of the building today are the cement steps and iron rails that once led to the front door of his beloved home. He speaks lovingly of Maurice and Minnie Osber, the surrogate parents of the children in the home. Although there was a nurse in attendance, Minnie Osber was more like a mother, tending to all the kids” ailments and comforting them when necessary.

After leaving the home, many of the children, including David's siblings, entered into professions. With great pride, the Osbers saw the accomplishments of 187 of their children when Minnie celebrated her 95th birthday in November 2000.

Today Epstein, after retiring from 42 years in veterinary medicine, is a prolific writer, as well as a poet. He recites his poetry at readings, while most of us read ours. He has been a poet since age 14, when he wrote a poem called “My Mother’s Kitchen.” This is a must-read, for it is written with fervour and will appeal to anyone who has ever had kitchen duty.

His book, Home: Life in the Jewish Home for Children, is still available. Read it, and you, too, will be inspired by the author, who bids me shalom, a word I truly understand. It means peace, hello and goodbye in Hebrew.

This feature: Acknowledgements to the Albuquerque Tribune:

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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