(My plans for this month’s column were changed when Chaya Burstein, the first political cartoonist for the Retiree Advocate and my mother-in-law, died on Saturday, September 15. I want to share with you what her oldest grandson, Jacob, wrote about his grandmother. – Robby Stern)
By Jacob Burstein-Stern
Chaya Burstein, author and illustrator of fifteen books, was also a mother, grandmother, painter, activist, feminist and all around adventurer.
Born in Queens in 1923 to Russian immigrant parents, Chaya early in life got involved in a Socialist Zionist organization.
There, as a sixteen year old, she met and began to date her future husband and fellow adventurer, Mordy Burstein (at fifteen years old, a younger man to boot!).
While Mordy served in the South Pacific during World War II, Chaya put her artistic talent to work as a draftsperson. In the places she worked, she was the only woman.
In 1948, Chaya and Mordy embarked for Palestine. In preparation for the trip, they assisted survivors of the Holocaust in a displaced persons camp in Marseilles. They smuggled themselves into Israel to found a kibbutz that still thrives today. During that time Chaya worked as a carpenter and was elected the first secretary of the kibbutz.
When Mordy was accepted into engineering school at the University of Missouri, they made the difficult decision to return to the states so that Mordy could earn his degree under the G.I Bill. They would not return to Israel for almost thirty-five years.
Once their three kids were old enough to attend school, Chaya took a course on illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Armed with a portfolio, Chaya went to Harcourt Brace hoping to secure work as an illustrator. Instead, she was told she should write stories to accompany her illustrations.
Chaya’s mother Rivka lived with the family. Chaya listened to the stories of the old country and out of these conversation came her first book, “Rifka Bangs the Teakettle,” which told the story of her mother’s growing up in a shtetl in Russia. Over the next forty-one years Chaya wrote and illustrated fifteen books while raising three children and earning a Masters degree in Middle East History. Two of those books, “Rifka Grows Up (1976)” and “The Jewish Kids Catalog (1982),” won the National Jewish Book award.
Chaya’s books chronicled many aspects of Jewish life from Jewish festivals and ritual to history and politics. She began her writing career with a fictionalized account of her own mother’s childhood and ended with an illustrated history of the Jews.
In between she wrote and illustrated cookbooks, catalogs, modern and ancient histories and Bible stories, seeking to make the complex, tragic, and infinitely rich experience of the Jewish people engaging and understandable to children and adults alike.
Through her literary output, Chaya far exceeded the social norms of women of her generation, but Chaya was never concerned with social norms and she certainly wasn’t content with achieving only one of her lifelong dreams.
After leaving Israel in 1950, Mordy and Chaya had yearned to return and continue the life they had begun all those years before. In 1985, at the ages 62 and 63, they returned to Israel to become founding members of a community in the Galilee.
For twenty years, Chaya and Mordy helped build that community from a cluster of trailers at the top of a barely paved mountain road into a thriving community. While continuing her literary work, Chaya played a vital role in shaping the burgeoning community. She also found time to do a great deal of literacy work within both the Jewish and Arab communities.
In 2005, Chaya and Mordy made the difficult decision to move back to the states. Their hearts very much remained in Israel and they were deeply troubled by the difficulties their beloved country was facing. But health concerns and a desire to be close to their family, now settled in Seattle, prevailed.
Their small garage at their Northgate home became an art studio. They could often be found working there together, Mordy on his woodcarving and Chaya on her paintings and the drawings and text for her final book.
In late 2011, Chaya was diagnosed with arteritis, a rare nerve disease that would ultimately take her life. But the years before the disease struck, and the months after, were times of prodigious output. In April of 2011, her paintings were featured in an exhibition at Temple Beth Am, one of the largest reform synagogues in Seattle. In the summer of 2011 she completed her final book, “The Amazing History of the Jews.” It was published early in 2012, just before the disease took away the use of her hands.
On the early evening of Saturday, September 15, in her own bed with all her family gathered around her and singing to her, Chaya passed on from this life.
True to who she was as the end of her long and extraordinary life, Chaya was thankful, humble, wholly aware of the world around her — and contrary. We are inexpressibly grateful for the legacy she has left and will miss her deeply even as her spirit lives on in her writing, her art, and the extraordinary humanity that defined her time on earth.