Writers keep skills sharp in Jewish Homes magazine

A wide-eyed woman in a babushka with a heavy wrap, her shoulders hunched, her mouth in an elusive Mona Lisa smile, graces the cover. Inside are poems about flowers and redwoods, Internet jokes, health stories, light verse and meeting notes.

The world between the covers of At Home, the monthly publication by and for the residents of San Francisco's Jewish Home, is one of memories — of life in the Old Country or the Bronx — but it's also one of what's happening now, with information on activities, eating healthy and the importance of laughter.

For more than 50 years, residents have been compiling At Home. And unlike many in-house newsletters, this one is "based on the tradition of free expression," according to its editorial policy, stated on Page 3. Opinions, and many of them are unorthodox, "should be viewed as not necessarily representing the opinion, position or policies of the Home."

"We're very committed to not making this be a feel-good nursing home piece," said Michael Wickler, a Web and media developer who works with residents to produce the monthly magazine. "We want it to be authentic as a vehicle for residents to communicate."

The writers, he added, "tend to be people who have written before in some way. We've seen a lot of talent come through here."

Among them are Milton Lewis, a former New York Herald Tribune investigative reporter and field reporter for an ABC-TV news affiliate; Jack Rosenbaum, a former Chronicle columnist; Erna Neubauer, who does a health feature; Gerda Fischer Darosci, a survivor and lifelong writer from Vienna; and Irving Bernstein, a former New York magazine illustrator and graphics artist, who designed this month's cover.

Writing is a mixture of the sublime and irreverent. A November publication on the residence's Butterfly Garden included two inspirational poems by Esther Weintraub and Mollie Spirn and one offbeat one by Lewis:

"What happens when the

butterfly needs the john

quickly without fail —

and desperately asks, 'Do

I go to the one marked

male or female?'"

Although Lewis is titled "Investigative Ink" on At Home's masthead, he's adamant that the title is more about alliteration than actuality.

"I don't investigate anything," said Lewis, 90. While At Home may not be The New Yorker or The New York Times, "in a small sense, it puts me back to what I used to love doing. It's been awhile…"

Another regular, Frances Marder, president of the Council of Residents, submits the council's minutes along with Internet jokes. In one column titled "When You are Over 60…" she includes such statements as, "You can live without sex but not without glasses," "Things you buy now won't wear out," and "You sing along with elevator music."

For Marder, 78, who is the mother of the residence's rabbi, Sheldon Marder, laughter is particularly vital later in life.

"If you laugh, you forget about your problems, and that's about what it amounts to," said Marder, a former English teacher who lived in Israel for many years, serving as English secretary for former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. "I wish they would put in more of [the lighter items]. Lately they've been putting in too many serious articles about diseases. Who wants to read about that?"

Frances Marder is a good writer who composes birthday

poems for monthly luncheons. "As long as the lines rhyme, everybody's happy," she said. But she doesn't "contribute original writing" to At Home. "I'm too busy."

One person who isn't too busy to make writing the focus of her life is Fischer Darosci, 79, At Home's editor. A Holocaust survivor from Vienna, she writes poetry and is currently at work on a novel, "Gateway to My Mind," written under the name Vera Darosci. Her poems, as well as abridged excerpts from her work in progress, appear in At Home.

"I started writing in my childhood," she said. "I lost my parents very early, and in order to comfort me I used to make up little stories about the sky and about the bees. Little children's stories, you know. I started writing very early in my life, for myself."

She'd submit her work to editors, but "they tried to invite me out to dinner instead of publishing my work…The war years came and they were very hard for me…"

Fifteen years ago, she came to the Home, where she has served as president of the residents' council.

She takes pride in her ability to be an editor, as she's completely self-taught in English — picking it up initially from illustrated magazines like True Stories while living in Montreal.

Contributing to At Home, she said, gives older people "a meaning, a life reassurance."

As for herself: "The gift of writing, the gift of poetry, was a present from God, to help me to survive."