Late-blooming artist Gertrude Bleiberg dies in Palo Alto

Few of the 4,000 residents in Quincy had ever met a Jew until Gertrude Tiefenbrun Bleiberg moved to town. She arrived with her husband in 1942 and had planned to stay in the Sierra Nevada town for six months. Instead they remained for over two decades and made lifelong friends before moving to Palo Alto in 1964.

Bleiberg, who later developed a reputation as an accomplished artist, died in Palo Alto Aug. 10 at the age of 80.

Despite her many years in a small town with only two other Jewish residents and no synagogue — the closest was more than 80 miles away in Reno, Nev. — Bleiberg never once lost sight of her Jewish values while raising four daughters. The two eldest celebrated b'not mitzvah in Reno — the youngest later in Palo Alto — and all four spent their summers at Jewish camps.

"We may not have gone to Hebrew school or had a formal Jewish education, but she taught us Jewish values and a true and deep love for Judaism," said her third daughter Victoria Zatkin, who resides in Oakland. "She did it all in our home, without the support of a synagogue nearby, or a Jewish community."

Bleiberg's Jewish lessons often extended beyond the family to some who were actually caught up in the myth that Jews had horns on their heads.

"She took it upon herself to educate the people of the town," said Zatkin. "Periodically, when she would encounter an anti-Semitic comment, she would confront the person and proceed to educate them.

"Some of those people became her dearest friends — until the day she died, in fact."

Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, who officiated at the weddings of all Bleiberg's daughters — and finds it remarkable that all four of the girls from Quincy "married Jewish men" — said the artist's friends "were accumulated" from all over the world. "Everywhere she went she reached out to make new friends," he said.

Perhaps that's why more than 300 people gathered to honor her memory during funeral services held last week at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

"She touched so many lives," said longtime friend and business associate Nancy Gordon. "We were very privileged to be included in her life."

Gordon, director of the Koret Gallery at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, met Bleiberg when she joined the staff 16 years ago. Bleiberg, a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., was a member of the gallery's art committee.

"She became like a surrogate mother," said Gordon, calling Bleiberg a wise, adventurous woman who "started her career as an artist at 50, by chance," and thereby became "a mentor for women in midlife."

A lifetime member of Hadassah, Bleiberg had been a typist. But 30 years ago, she signed up for an adult education art class as a favor to the instructor, who needed to fill the class. Her artistic talent — of which she was formerly unaware — became immediately apparent.

She went on to earn both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Aside from some sketches of Israel, her drawings — which reflect the essence of ordinary life by celebrating everyday objects like shoes, umbrellas and pocketbooks — do not have an exclusively Jewish theme.

However, many of her pieces have found their way to Jewish homes. Her art has been seen on display at Temple Beth Jacob and the ALSJCC. Also, just prior to her death Bleiberg had donated several pieces to the Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco.

Her abstract style, reflected in paintings, drawings, sketches and etchings, also found its way to the covers of all eight of her grandchildren's b'nai mitzvah invitations and several temple bulletins.

Bleiberg eventually established a monetary award to honor other mid-career artists like herself, through the Koret Gallery.

Gordon hopes to continue the award by creating the Gertrude Bleiberg Mid-Career Artist Memorial Fund. Proceeds would be earned through an art auction of donated artworks and awarded once a year to a mid-career artist. Those interested in donating artwork for the auction should contact Gordon at (650) 493-0563, ext. 252.

Bleiberg herself received many awards and honors for her work including the 1992 Lifetime Achievement award from the South Bay chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art. In 1995, she was selected as one of few artists whose works were displayed in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Institute's 125th anniversary.

"She did all of this after the age of 50," Gordon said.

Bleiberg's "get up and go attitude," as Teitelbaum described it, also extended to other parts of her life.

After her husband passed away in the late 1990s, for instance, she embarked on a 50-day freighter trip through South America, painting along the way.

"Everyone was so worried about her going by herself, but she was determined," Gordon remembered.

And after painfully breaking her shoulder, she still insisted on visiting the temple's senior group and showing them slides of her artwork. "She said, 'A promise is a promise,'" said Teitelbaum, who is rabbi emeritus at the synagogue and executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

"That's Gertrude for you," he added. "She always told her daughters to keep moving, go forward and everything will turn out all right."

Bleiberg is survived by her daughters Diana Jacobson of Salinas, Deborah Jacobson of La Salva Beach, Wendy Maybaum of Ann Arbor, Mich. and Zatkin; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to Hadassah, 2215 Judah St., S.F., CA, 94122 or to a charity of choice.