Margaret Singer: 1921 – 2019In Memoriam | Thu Jun 06, 2019 | 12:00am
For years I have wondered, “What will we be without Margaret?”
We wanted her to live forever because she was essential to defining this community. Margaret was our ancient woman of wisdom, our fiery prophet of vegetarianism, our one true mystic, our merry prankster, our teacher of color, our passionate and gifted poet, our living bridge to pre-Holocaust Europe.
And while she got older and older and older, she never became anything less than vibrantly alive. Something within us imagined that Margaret might find a way to outfox the angel of death. But Margaret herself suffered no such delusions, and she thought and wrote and spoke about death often, with curiosity, with warmth, and with optimism.
Margaret was born on June 11, 1921, in Frankfurt Germany, the daughter of Leon and Gitl Singer. Despite being poor, Margaret remembers her childhood as happy, attending a good school, hiking in the countryside, attending the nearby synagogue, and walking without fear all over the city.
Margaret’s happy childhood ended in 1933, when she was 12 years old, with the Nazi rise to power. The German children that she used to play with now threw stones at her and her brothers and sister, and they saw an elderly Jewish man being pulled by his beard and thrown to the ground and beaten in the street. Finally in November 1938, on the terrifying night of Kristallnacht, the synagogues of Frankfurt were burned to the ground, and Margaret’s parents joined the hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking to escape from Germany, and or at least to send their children to safety. Margaret’s father managed to send Margaret and her sister, Paula, to America, and a week later her brother got out on the final Kindertransport. Margaret’s mother was murdered in Auschwitz on June 23, 1943.
Margaret arrived in New York in 1939, 17 years old. Like millions of other immigrants, she experienced the deep and awesome thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty welcoming her to this new world. Margaret went to work in a factory and studied with an artist and teacher named Carl Gustaf Nelson. She later said: “I had a wonderful teacher when I was very young in a world that was falling apart. I felt his paintbrush was more vital and more important than the people with the machine guns … he was a signpost of what life could be instead of the destruction that went on. I learned to be a teacher from the way he was.”
I do not know what made Margaret come to California, but she described getting off the Greyhound bus in Santa Barbara in the 1940s: “When I got out and I smelled the wonderful sea breeze, I said to myself, this is the air for me!” Margaret attended Adult Education, and then enrolled at Santa Barbara City College and transferred to UCSB, where she earned a BA in art and an MA in educational psychology. She taught painting in SBCC’s Adult Education for 20 years, but in recent decades, Margaret has taught us simply by living among us, one of Santa Barbara’s most familiar and beloved citizens.
Speaking personally, I would say that Margaret drove me crazy. Especially in our Shabbat morning Torah study group, she would interrupt me freely and repeatedly if she felt it was necessary. We disagreed about some things, especially the Torah’s elaborate descriptions of animal sacrifice, which Margaret hated passionately. And whenever I would mention the world being broken and in need of repair, she would blurt out, “No. It’s perfect.”
On a deeper level, I don’t believe I will ever find a person with whom I shared so much. Margaret had questions for God. Huge, unanswerable questions, which she posed with power and fury. In her poem “Three Questions,” she asks: “Why did You let the Shoah happen? / My mother never did You harm.” But Margaret loved God deeply, and she prayed, honestly and without embarrassment, prayers of gratitude, and prayers for healing and forgiveness. Margaret was never as happy as the day that I told her that my wife, Marian, and I had decided to be vegetarians. For several weeks, she would interrupt me at the beginning of Torah Study to say, “Rabbi, tell them about your decision.” During festivals, when I saw Margaret, she or I would greet the other with “This is the day that the Lord has made!” and the other would respond “Let us be rejoice and be glad in it!”
With Margaret, I always felt that I was in the presence of one person who embodied all of our ancestors, all 4,000 years of our people’s pain and suffering and joy and humor and wisdom. She is now with our ancestors, bringing them news of us and our efforts to create a new Jewish world out of the ashes of the old. I look forward to seeing Margaret again, to singing with her late in the afternoon, and to being exasperated over the Torah with her, forever.
Her memory shall be a blessing for all of us.
A Celebration of Life, which includes a showing of the film Margaret Singer: Seeking Light, will take place at the Congregation B’nai B’rith on Tuesday, June 11, at 6 p.m.