A tribute to Ann Proyect
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun May 27 14:35:21 MDT 2001
I just returned from Sullivan County in upstate NY. My 80 year old mother
was the guest of honor last night at a dinner of over 100 people organized
by the local reform synagogue she belongs to. She has been a tireless
worker on behalf of that organization and many other local causes as well.
After dinner, people took the podium and paid tribute to her, myself included.
Reform Judaism is about 200 years old. It got started in Germany, where
progressive-minded Jews felt the need to introduce Enlightenment values to
a religion that had become marked by empty rituals. Unlike Orthodox
Judaism, men and women sit together in the same room for reform services,
which are conducted in English or whichever local language. (Orthodox
Jewish men say a prayer every day thanking god that they were not born a
woman.) In Israel today, the rightwing settler element that forms the
hard-core base of the Likud government is exclusively Orthodox. In addition
to seeking to imposing apartheid-like conditions on Palestinians, they also
seek to remove official status from Reform Judaism.
At our table were seated two of Sullivan County's most famous victims of
irrational drug laws. One was Mildred Kaits, about the same age as my mom,
who was arrested by local police in the 1980s when she was found growing
marijuana for her son, who had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. Her
case gained nation-wide attention and she spoke frequently on television
talk shows with her son. In keeping with other moves by the Bush
administration to turn back the clock, the US Supreme Court just declared
against medical marijuana.
The other victim was my cousin Joel Proyect, who was arrested for growing
marijuana at his secluded mountain-top home that he built with his own
hands. Known as the "hippy lawyer," he was written up in the NY Times and
many other newspapers as the quintessential victim of a stupid law. Not
only had he never been arrested before, his neighbors and friends
considered him a model citizen. He was actually president of the local bar
association when he was arrested. Since he had grown something like 20
plants over the amount geared to a lighter sentence, he faced a mandatory
minimum sentence of five years and would end up serving four. I used to
visit him in the slammer in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The state was not
satisfied with locking him up. They also sought to seize his home and
prevent him from ever practicing law again. Thankfully, he beat them back
and is now back at home defending people once again. The dinner was the
first time that Joel and Mildred met each other in person, an appropriate
My mother is well known in the community not only for her civic service,
but for a weekly column called "Ann Proyect Says" that she writes for a
local newspaper. My mother inherited the column from a woman named Eleanor
Harris, whose tribute to my mother (see below) was included along with
other tributes in a commemorative booklet handed out at the dinner. In this
column she rewards friends and punishes enemies, just like I do on Internet
mailing lists. Like me (or me like her, to be more accurate), she sometimes
confuses the two in the heat of the moment.
I was the next to last person to speak, just before my mom. Everybody in
the audience knew I was some kind of leftist, since my mom had described my
exploits many times in her column. The emcee described me somewhat
inaccurately as a "Trotskyite" when he introduced me. He had my web page in
front of him, whose quote from Max Horkheimer was used earlier in the
evening to describe my mom's often unappreciated efforts, which were at
last getting their proper due:
"a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles,
interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace,
ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an
almost superhuman belief."
In my remarks, I said the same thing I had said many times before when
people asked me how I became a radical. Where my parents on the left? I
said that my mom was a big influence on me, even though she never was in
the CP or was ideological by any stretch of the imagination. Here were two
anecdotes that illustrated the kind of direction I received from her.
There was a saloon in our small village that was filled with black people
almost every night of the week in the 1950s. Driving past one night, I
asked my mother why blacks spent seemed to spend all their time and money
in a bar (Jews looked down on anybody who drank.) She replied that the bar
was not necessarily a place to get drunk. It served as a social center for
blacks who because of poverty and racism could not afford to buy a house.
If you do not have a house, it is difficult to have company. That cleared
things up for me, without having to read Gunnar Myrdal.
On another occasion, I had returned home from school--it must have been
when I was 9 or 10 years old--to discover my mother at her sewing machine
working on the costume of a female impersonator who was the star attraction
of something called the Jewel Box Revue that performed every summer in a
local nightclub. This man, who had all the mannerisms of a "queen", was
clearly relaxed in my mother's company. She made every effort to treat him
as just another guest or fellow human being and I, following her cue, did
so as well. Without reading gay liberation literature (there was none at
the time), my mother had clearly understood the need to treat everybody on
the basis of who they are as individuals rather than as members of a group.
To Whom It May Concern:
Ann Proyect and I matured together. She went on to embrace the spiritual
and enriching life of Judaism?. I went on to embrace other affairs, not the
best of which was spiritual. This doesnt say much about my character but
it sure says a lot about synthetic hormones.
But this is about Ann, not about me.
When I met Ann in 1949, the one thing we had in common, aside from our
respective two Sons and one husband, and our penchant for clean bathrooms,
was our ability to get things done for our community, all of which our
husbands encouraged as it gave them time to play poker.
Our community then was primarily Jewish and there was no need to remind
anyone of his heritage and need to keep it alive. Ann turned her efforts to
implementing organized sports for the children of our community. Little
League came into being, as did the Boy Scouts, ball teams, ice skating, all
of which before Ann were non-existent. She truly brought the community
Her outspokenness soon became a gift of eloquence, and, singlehandedly, at
several hotels in one night, through her persuasiveness and warmth, raised
$800. 00 for the cause of the polio vaccine which, that summer, was
distributed free to every person in Sullivan County.
Her own personal tragedy, so heartbreaking, which could have been a
life-long drain on her life was endured stoically through her faith in
religion. It was this faith, this strong tie to Judaism, that saved her
sanity and created this spokeswoman for the cause of keeping Judaism alive
in a world today where materialism is rapidly replacing spiritualism.
Ah, yes, Ann and I can no longer boast of firm, young flesh, or the merit
of jitterbugging over the Cha-Cha, but I can boast of Ann Proyect about
whom it can truly be said, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her
infinite variety... " for Ann s active and ever young mind is keeping
alive the spirit and meaning of the Jewish faith.
Sincerely, Eleanor Harris
(This letter came to us from sunny Miami, Florida where Eleanor Harris now
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