Helen Latner, known to worldwide audiences as author of “The Book of Modern Jewish Etiquette,” “Your Jewish Wedding,” “The Everything Jewish Wedding Book” and many more, passed away earlier this month in Massachusetts, at the age of 97. While she was known for her charisma, energy and varied interests, one of the most significant contributions that Mrs. Latner made to the American-Jewish world was putting Jewish customs on par with the American mainstream.
Latner was a widely syndicated advice columnist based at the New York Jewish Week for more than a dozen years. What might be lesser known about her is she excelled in numerous other varied roles in a time when women rarely held leadership positions outside the home, including as a music producer, teacher, high school English department chair and novelist.
Perhaps her first time in print was when she was named the spelling bee champion of Brooklyn. A graduate of the Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, the then Helen Hudesman was editor of her school paper and valedictorian. Her “bold academic performance,” according to her daughter Sarah Stambler Bar-Ayal, served as a foreshadowing to a busy and accomplished life.
Not every Jewish student went to college in the 1930s. Latner’s parents were hauled into her school principal’s office and told that she “possessed a high intelligence and should be college bound,” Bar-Ayal recalled being told. Latner won a scholarship to Hunter College and after graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she returned as a student teacher to her old high school where she met her first husband, Benedict Stambler. Together they had four children: Zipporah, Monty, Sarah and Abigail. They continued teaching, but also began to work together recording children’s stories for KTAV.
They also began to collaborate on one of Ben’s pet projects, Collectors’ Guild; its sole objective was to preserve Jewish music. The guild grew into an impressive music label, releasing many cantorial concert records and collections, focusing on Chassidic, Ladino, Yiddish and Israeli melodies, among others. Together, the Stamblers released more than 50 LPs in approximately 12 years.
“Her high level of intelligence was her driving force throughout her life,” said Bar-Ayal. “There was a restlessness within her that demanded she take on complex projects that drew in others and guided them all to a new level of achievement. I could see this as she led and directed the class sings at Tilden, shows at summer camp and recording sessions for Collectors’ Guild,” she said.
After Ben’s death in 1967, Helen threw herself fully into her writing career. Seeing a void in the Jewish world for advice to guide young Jewish couples, her first book, “The Book of Modern Jewish Etiquette,” was published by Schocken Books in hard cover, but then released in soft cover by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). It was endorsed by Hadassah Magazine, was a favorite book club selection and remained in constant print for close to 30 years, as did her other books.
Mrs. Latner then took advantage of the “agony aunt” trend of the day. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Emily Post was the go-to source for anyone who desired to know the acceptable American way of conducting oneself. Dear Abby and her sister, Ann Landers, became household names, and while they themselves were Jewish, they generally did not address issues from a Jewish perspective. Latner sought to bridge the gap between Jewish identity and American practices.
Complementary to the columns, the books on etiquette, which blended Jewish customs with American ones, not only provided a guide but also legitimized those customs to a generation that stood at a crossroads in the United States. Seeing the books in general bookstores and on library shelves gave additional legitimacy to young American Jews who, due to the upheavals of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which were characterized by massive assimilation, immigration and the horrors of World War II, were only vaguely familiar with the customs of earlier generations. Latner also widened the knowledge of customs that varied in the increasingly segmented American Jewish community. In writing down the range of ways that were in use and acceptable in that period, she spoke with authority and also with respectful sensitivity to the variation of Jewish formal behaviors, particularly for those outside the tri-state area where Jewish communities were more disparate.
Latner’s advice column, which ran initially in the New York Jewish Week, grew to be syndicated in The Washington Jewish Week, The Palm Beach Jewish World, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, The Phoenix Jewish Times, The Atlanta Jewish Times, The San Diego Jewish Times and The Zionist Record (in South Africa). At its height, the “Ask Helen Latner” column had a circulation of 300,000.
While the books and columns might be a symbol of Mrs. Latner’s lasting legacy, her verve and career advancement and accomplishments are noteworthy for the era in which they took place; the workplace looked a lot more like Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen’s than Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina’s when Latner was in it.
“As a working mom when most mothers stayed home, the original ‘superwoman’ who tried to balance motherhood, a career and her desire to leave an enduring legacy, I can only agree that our mom was a woman ahead of her time,” said Abigail McLean, Latner’s youngest daughter. “Her enthusiasm for lifelong learning, never giving up and always being ready to take on a new creative project was inspired by her parents, Harry and Pauline. Helen was encouraged to pursue the education and opportunities that her parents could only dream of before they came to this country.”
Helen’s second husband, David Latner, died in 2000. Helen was also stepmother to David’s son, Peter. “Not long after my dad passed away, she gathered the dozens of Haiku poems he’d written over the years, and designed, edited and self-published a beautiful book in tribute to him,” Peter Latner said.
In her 90s, Latner published her first work of fiction, a romantic novel called “Where Love Hides,” which is available on Amazon. Her daughter, McLean, helped her realize this endeavor. “During the last years of her life, our mother desperately wanted to get more of her work published. As I worked with her to self-publish her first novel, I came to understand that she did want to be recognized and remembered as an author, not just an editor, advice columnist and retired teacher. As a writer, our mother spent many hours in isolation, toiling over manuscripts that few have read. Her last wish was to publish her novel and poetry so that work could be shared and preserved as part of her lasting legacy,” McLean said.
During her “retirement years,” Latner also ran a Jewish American fiction class and a Yiddish Circle at her senior center in Massachusetts, where she also directed radio shows. She was a lifelong fan of Yiddish theater, and often watched Yiddish-language films with her son Monty and spoke of the influence of her parents who came to this country as young adults and Yiddish speakers.
“Our mom was a very highly intelligent woman, filled with the spunk that said ‘nothing is ever too hard!’ We were all raised to have the worldview that we were created to create in varied media. She passed that heritage on to us all,” said Zipporah Bennett, Latner’s oldest daughter.
“Our mother had enough endeavors to fill two or three lives, and it is only when going through her papers and photographs that the full scope of it hits you,” said Monty Stambler, Latner’s son.
“She was so passionate about so much—her family, her teaching, the arts, her community, her writing. But I’m convinced her greatest love, her true passion, was life itself. She loved it fully and without reservation, even when, on rare occasion, it didn’t always love her back. How many of us can look back after so many years and truly make that claim?” asked Peter Latner.
Learn more about Helen Latner by visiting her Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Helen-Latner/e/B001K8M66C.
By Elizabeth Kratz