Spiritual Journey Snapshot
Recorded by Laura Schwartzberg
October 29, 1929 was a memorable day for many. The stock market crashed and Elaine was born in the Bronx, New York. “You are born into a religion,” Elaine told me when I asked her about her spiritual beginnings. Elaine’s mother was a Methodist and her father an Irish Catholic, which became the dominant religion in her home. Out of respect for his wife’s feelings, however, there were no crucifixes or other signs of the Catholic faith in the house. It was all low-key but the family attended church every Sunday. When Elaine was a young teenager, she sang in the choir, in Latin, which was the official church language then. Her mother did convert, but Elaine sensed that she was never really comfortable with Catholicism.
Elaine had a close friend, Florence Rubin, who was Jewish and lived down the street. Every Friday they would spend two hours together at Florence’s house where the candles were always lit for the Sabbath. Florence’s mother was out with friends and the two girls enjoyed each other’s company until Florence’s father came home from work at eight. He would stand at the door watching as Elaine ran down the block to her own home until she was safely inside. This friendship and the experience of living among other religions made Elaine more sympathetic to other customs and languages. The music in church and in her friend’s home resonated spiritually and she heard Italian spoken by the grandparents in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t until Elaine met Herb, who came from a Methodist family, and became engaged that religion became an issue. They were married in a Catholic church in 1954 because she knew her parents expected a Catholic wedding. Herb’s best man was Jewish and her younger brother, a former boy soprano, sang selections from the Messiah. After their marriage, they attended both Sunday Mass and Methodist services each week in Islip, Long Island where they lived, but at this point, they were both becoming critical of certain aspects of their respective religions. They decided to do some research at their local public library where they took out many books about religion. The one that affected Elaine most, however, was not about theology or comparative religions. It was a beautiful book of photographs of the interiors of Quaker Meeting Houses. There were no people shown, and Elaine wondered, what kind of people sat and worshipped in such places? She was struck by the sense of serenity, quiet and simplicity in the photographs and asked the librarian, “Is there a Quaker Meeting House in Islip?” There was not, but the librarian found out there was one nearby in Westbury.
Elaine and Herb immediately felt at home and were warmly welcomed as attenders in the Westbury meeting. At that time, the meeting was fraught with politics and the tension between activist members and those with quieter religious leanings. It was 1956 and the United States government was performing atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean atolls. There were activist Westbury members who owned sailboats, some of them big enough to sail from Long Island waters all the way to the Pacific Ocean to protest the atomic tests. Peace was a very important issue to Elaine and Herb as well, reinforced by Herb’s experience in the army at the end of World War II and his older brother’s service in the Far East for a longer period, which he survived. Elaine felt that “to pursue peace is an everlasting effort.”
When Herb received a Fulbright to study metal art in England, they became attenders at the local Quaker Meeting there. Their daughter, Martha, was born in England. When they returned to the States, they heard about Powell House, and looked for a place to live in the area because they felt that there would soon be a Quaker Meeting there. A few years later there was. In 1966, after their son, George, was born, they finally became members of the meeting. Elaine says that she has always enjoyed the silence, the listening in meetings for worship and the “quiet prayers that pierce the space.” She goes for spiritual refreshment and to be with others in silence.
When our meeting decided to build our own place of worship, Elaine became active on the committee that designed and carried through the long process of making the Meeting House a reality. Her early vision of Quaker meeting houses, from the long ago discovered book of photography led her commitment to the work. One of the lasting memories she has from that time is a conversation with a heating system installer who worked on the building. He spoke to Elaine about his gratitude to the Quakers at the end of World War II who provided cocoa and cookies when he was a cold and hungry nine-year-old boy in Germany. Elaine reflected on her own experience as a child during the depression, when nothing was wasted and saving resources was a necessity. The Quaker testimonies of simplicity and wise usage of nature and our planet’s resources are still important to us today.