Oakland Museum exhibit honors a Yiddishe gaucho

When Stan Osofsky invited Sergio Quintor to join his family for Rosh Hashana dinner, Quintor had no idea he'd meet someone who would change the way he looked at life.

Osofsky's 85-year-old grandmother Lena Ponsky "asked if I was Jewish," recalls Quintor, who is an artist.

He told her he wasn't.

Ponsky asked if Quintor spoke Spanish. He told her he did.

Right then, Ponsky started talking to Quintor in Spanish. Their dialogues continued, off and on, for the next few years, until Ponsky's death in 1994 at the age of 90.

"One of the first things she told me…was that she always tried to lead her life with tzedakah, to establish justice in her world through compassion for other human beings," says Quintor, who lives in Oakland.

"That just fascinated me and we spent hours talking about how you can do that."

This year, when the Oakland Museum invited Quintor to prepare a display for its "Dias de Los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) exhibit, he knew what he wanted to do: pay tribute to his friend.

"Dias de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death in the Latin American tradition," says Quintor, who was born in a small town in Mexico. "I told the curator I wanted to honor the three most important women I knew: my grandmother, a friend and Lena Ponsky."

Quintor created three separate sculptures. The piece dedicated to Ponsky is a large metal ring with three simple masks, reminiscent of death masks, suspended inside.

One mask has its eyes open and mouth closed; another has an open mouth and closed eyes; the third has both its mouth and eyes open. On a placard next to the structure the artist's statement reads:

"Tzedakah:

"Establish justice in the world through compassion for others;

"Using your voice to make justice known;

"Using your eyes to observe and knowing when to be quiet;

"Making use of all your senses to establish justice in our world through compassion for others."

The masks are connected to each other and the rim with wire that is barely visible; but if one wire is touched, they all move.

"Even when you think you are not affecting other individuals, you are — because we are all part of one circle of life," says Quintor, explaining the sculpture and one of the lessons he learned from Ponsky.

Quintor considers himself very lucky to have met Ponsky when he did. It was a time when she was synthesizing everything she had learned and was helping others understand themselves a little bit better. The fact that Quintor was fluent in Spanish solidified their connection.

"Many of her ideas only came to her in Spanish," Quintor recalls. Born in Warsaw, Poland, Ponsky and her family emigrated to Argentina in 1907 with financial aid from the Jewish philanthropist Baron Hirsh. In Argentina they settled in Moishe Villa, a rural Jewish community. These Jews, known as the"Yiddishe gauchos," were provided with farmland. After working the land for several years, the property became legally their own.

After a not-very-successful attempt at farming, Ponsky's family moved to Buenos Aires. In 1924 they emigrated to New York, later moving to California.

Ponsky lived according to her philosophy: She invited servicemen to her home for holiday meals, carried food to families in need, volunteered for the American Red Cross, Pioneer Women (an organization that taught trades to Israeli women) and the sisterhoods of Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland and Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.

Ponsky, a talented singer, often performed Yiddish and Argentine songs at fund-raisers.

Quintor said the elderly woman opened his eyes to a different way of thinking. These days he often finds himself wondering, "What would Lena do or say?" before acting in a difficult situation.

"Whenever you think your world is closing in, step out of yourself and take a look," says Quintor, repeating advice Ponsky gave him. "Think about how your decision will affect other people."

Shortly before Ponsky died, she asked Quintor to visit Argentina to see her relatives, who remained there. Ponsky told him that since she would never return to Latin America herself, "You have to tell them everything you and I have spoken about.

"You are the tie," she told him.

With Ponsky's grandson Osofsky, Quintor traveled to Argentina. A few days after the pair arrived in South America, Ponsky died.

"You have to embrace whatever is coming but you have to feel you have left something behind, something people can use in their journey through life," says Quintor.

"Lena has done that for me, not only through her word but through her example."