Miriam Weinstein is a writer and filmmaker who lives on Cape Ann.
A native of New York, she attended Brandeis University and moved to the North Shore, where she became deeply involved in the Jewish community, serving as the president of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. She is married to Peter Feinstein. Their son, Eli Feinstein, and his wife, Jana Lipman, have two children, Liza and Ruthie. Their daughter, Mirka Feinstein,
is married to Asher Peltz. Their children are Sadie and Rosie.
Could you tell us about your upbringing and your family?
I grew up in New York City in the years following World War II. We were not religious, but were heavily Jewish-identified. My sister and I went to an after-school Yiddish program.
In addition to some ambivalence around assimilation [my parents were first-generation Americans], being Jewish sometimes felt like a not very safe option. We lived among immigrants, refugees, and Holocaust survivors, and it was the time of McCarthyism. But it was also a very warm, protected environment. My father was an old-fashioned doctor; we lived above his office. Our extended family, and our neighborhood, were very tight.
My high school was an Ethical Culture school. Founded by 19th century German Jews, the idea was to separate morality from the negative parts of religion. I appreciated our weekly ethics classes, although we kids did wicked imitations of a teacher who leaned toward self-congratulation. [“Last week, when I had lunch with Mrs. Roosevelt ….”]
You went to Brandeis in the 1960s. How was that experience, and did that influence you to become a filmmaker and writer?
It was a heady time. The founding social science professors were still very present, and I was involved with the northern end of the Civil Rights movement. We taught at “Freedom Schools” in Roxbury, spent a summer with a Brandeis philosophy professor helping kids there build an “adventure playground,” i.e., we colonized a vacant lot. One year, a friend and I set up and ran a nursery school at a community center on Blue Hill Ave., and got college credit for it.
I was a painting major. We had important visiting artists from New York, as well as excellent professors. That push-pull between aesthetics and social concerns was a recurring theme for me. Making films and writing (journalism, essays, books) has been a way to use both sides of my brain.
How did you meet your husband?
I was working as a documentary filmmaker in Boston, and signed up for a weeklong conference on documentaries. Peter had just begun the Film Forum in New York, a showcase for independent film. He was responsible for check-ins, and he ranked the female attendees by looks. He decided I was #1.
You became a documentary filmmaker. Your early films focused on family and relationships – such as your father, husband, and son. What drew you to these subjects, and what did you learn about yourself while making the films?
My day job was working on educational films [urban renewal, open education, natural childbirth]. The personal films were ways to help me grow up. The women’s movement was saying that the personal was political. This gave me, a shy person, permission to explore things I needed to learn about. Now I am thinking: how shy could I have been to exhibit my private life on film? But being behind the camera, and being in charge of the project, gave me the control I craved.
We were in the middle of a great societal shift, and the films helped me figure out where I fit in. Other “extra curriculars” at the time included documenting anti-war Vietnam veterans, and taking photographs for “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
You’ve also written several books – with topics ranging from family to Yiddish. How do you settle on a book topic, and what does writing do for your soul?
A book has to have enough emotional resonance to keep the author’s interest for several years. The subject has to be complex enough to warrant a book. It also has to have a definable audience, and fill a need. As well, it has to be a realistic project, given the author’s capabilities. Again, it’s a creative response to a real-world issue.
This many years in, writing helps center me and order the world. It is also a way to learn about things that I am curious about or care about. I always assumed that, when I got old, I would return to painting, but I seem to have become seduced by words and stories.
When did you move to Cape Ann and why?
We moved from Cambridge in 1984 … my husband loves to sail. It all felt very foreign to me; I figured I would give it a year.
When did you begin to connect with Judaism?
In Cambridge, we had sent our kids to an off-beat Hebrew school. But, because Cambridge contained so many different kinds of people, being Jewish was neither here nor there. Living in Manchester [by-the-Sea] made us more Jewish. There were very few Jews in town, so we were the exemplars, whether we wanted to be or not. Also, we immediately fell in with Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.
TAA centered our lives. It gave us a welcoming community in the white-bread North Shore. It was engaging emotionally and intellectually, and it was just plain fun. It also helped me cobble together something resembling a Jewish education, giving me a context for the way I had been brought up.
The synagogue was a very mom and pop operation, with Rabbi Myron Geller running all the services, and Eileen Geller being the entire Hebrew School faculty. One older man, Maurice Dancour, z”l, took it upon himself to sit with the bar/bat mitzvah kids at services. In such a small community, there is no “them;” there is only “us.”
Over time, I realized that my kids were having a more positive Jewish experience than I had had growing up.
You became the president of the Gloucester synagogue and also helped rebuild the temple after the 2007 fire. Why are you so passionate about the synagogue?
Being the only Jewish organization in an end-of-the-line locale, we have to get along. We come up with creative ways to be together – neighborhood Shabbat dinners, exhibits of family photos, a lobster pot menorah, services on the beach. When we needed a new head for our religious school, we took Phoebe Potts, a warm and talented artist and teacher, and sent her for training as a Jewish educator. We juggle tradition and innovation.
How big a part is Jewish identity in your life?
Quite big. This is surprising to me.
What’s the future of Judaism in America?
If we are intentional and innovative, we can create the kinds of nourishing institutions that people yearn for. We have so much to draw on.
You have a blog about being a grandmother. Any advice to future grandparents?
For me, the fascination and the fulfillment at the very beginning was watching my children and their spouses become parents, and helping them grow into their new lives. It can be hard, but also liberating, to realize that you are no longer of primary importance. Of course, as the kids grow up, you develop different relationships with each of them, depending on who they turn out to be.
Now, I am a docent at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, which has brought me back to painting, my first love. I am also involved with Wellspring, a social service agency, especially with their program for English Language Learners, which feels comfortable because of my interest in language, and my childhood among immigrants. I am currently producing a photo/interview exhibit about the ELL students and tutors.