Linda and I first met at a recent event to welcome new members to Mount Zion, where she immediately endeared herself to me by mentioning that she had already read some of this Humans series. That, together with her confirming that there was a certain irony to her name – the German origin of feisty, which she is. Reason enough to get together, and all the more so, given the story that would unfold. Her family today includes two sons, a stepdaughter, and several grandchildren, as she lives in Mendota Heights with her husband Roger. Last week we welcomed them again, as they took part in our temple’s first night Seder last Friday night.
(Linda, upon sitting down): “I’ve prepared some notes with my answers.”
That’s great! We’ll be sure to get to all your answers, but let’s start with my questions if we can. If I miss anything just be sure to let me know. So lets start at the beginning. Tell me about your growing up years.
I was born in New York City, and I went to a progressive school there. I then attended the University of Chicago, ending with an MA in Library Science. I am extremely grateful to my parents for my education, and for developing my curiosity. I have never lost that drive to find answers. Some people see my gift as being able to make connections, which means that if you have a problem I will try and solve it for you. I think it’s a Jewish thing. Though occasionally my friends say to me “I don’t want you to solve this, I just want you to listen.”
Tell me more about New York and your family during those early years.
We lived on the upper east side of Manhattan at 79th and Third in an apartment, which is incomprehensible to my grandchildren who all are all growing up in houses. My grandmother also lived in the building. My father was Leonard Feist and my mother were Mary Regensburg Feist. Her name was read for Kaddish this past weekend.
My grandfather, my father’s father, was Leo Feist. He began as a corset maker, but he liked to write songs, and eventually became a music publisher. His company, Leo Feist Inc., became one of the largest music publishers in the world by the 1920s. He was a wonderful man, but he passed away before I was born so I never knew him. I’ve done a lot of genealogy and there have been wonderful things written about him. He was kind, funny, smart, and charitable. In his will he established the Leo Feist Charity, which was to “provide the necessities of life” to the needy. The charity is going to this day with three generations involved. Every year we decide on worthwhile organizations to support.
My mother was a talented painter. In the 1950’s she had some gallery shows. She also worked as an interior decorator. She was always active in our school and education.
My family’s background was Alsatian on my father’s side and German on my mother’s. My parents probably knew each other growing up and met through their families’ social network.
My mother was a Regensburg and several members of her family were very active with Temple Emanu-el in NYC. Beginning in the late 1860’s my great-great grandfather served as Sexton, my great grandfather was the Controller for 35 years. My grandfather, Mel, was head of the Brotherhood and on the board of Emanu-el for many years. These relationships with the temple all seemed to end with my grandfather in 1948. I didn’t know any of this until I started doing genealogy. I went to Emanu-El with my Grandmother only on rare occasions when I was growing up.
And then there was my uncle Milton, my father’s brother, who became an Orthodox rabbi. He was a wonderful man. I am sure that his influence is with me to this day. Since my family were non-practicing Jews, he was my link to the Judaism. I inherited his Pentateuch and Haftorahs and my love for Judaism.
Did you have many Jewish connections growing up?
Almost all of my family and my friends were Jewish. My best friend’s family was conservative and her grandmother, who kept Kosher, lived with them. We went to Jewish Community Center socials on Saturday nights. New York City is an easy place to be a Jew.
Although my parents were Jewish, and they would fight anybody for their Judaism, they were what I would call “ethnic” Jews and not religious Jews. As such, there was no ritual and no familiarity with Jewish customs and practices in our family. To this day that makes me feel like an outsider.
I assume your connections to Judaism did begin at some point?
By the age of 13, I was a good reader, and through my reading I became extremely curious about an interested in Judaism. Since then I have read widely, asked questions and studied Judaism. So I think I am knowledgeable, but not practiced.
Let’s go back and pickup with high school, what were activities where you involved in?
Around the same time that I found my Judaism, I became committed to changing the world and started to be active in politics. I began working for the Adlai Stephenson campaign in the 1950’s, and have been active in politics ever since. I’m not active in the Democratic Party right now, because I think the party needs new management, but I am committing all my time this year to voter registration. That’s the only way we’re going to change things. It’s not the issues we need to change, it’s the regime.
And I played competitive sports in high school, which was not at all common for girls in the1950’s I played basketball, volleyball, and softball. The opportunity to play in league sports was a very important part of my life. I believe playing a sport is an important. I’m a pretty competitive person so being part of a team was very important for me. I am grateful for the opportunity.
What prompted you to attend the University of Chicago?
A lot of my choices have been experiential. I am dyslexic, so I don’t know how I got into the University of Chicago. My father wanted me to go to a one of the Ivy League’s “seven sisters” schools but when I toured some of them I didn’t get a good feeling. Then my school counselor suggested Chicago, and I interviewed there and felt at home. I decided right then that I was going there. I got a wonderful education and it was a great choice for me.
I ended up in history, but I had no clue what my major was going to be when I began. My BA from Chicago was in Renaissance history, which my father called “my fairy tale years.” I remember that an uncle had told me “you need to have a career where you don’t need to count on a man”. I found out he was right.
How did you end up in library science?
After Chicago, I was going to go to Columbia to study history, and become a college teacher, but that summer I had trouble getting a job. My friend’s father was personnel director at the New York Public Library, so I got to work there that summer in a library on the Lower East side, in the heart of the Jewish Italian neighborhood. And it was wonderful! So, I went back to Chicago and transferred my graduate school major to library science.
And from there, I graduated, got married, and moved here with my husband, who had a job as an instructor in the Economics Department at the U of M. I worked at the downtown Minneapolis Public Library until my first son was born, and then I became a stay at home mom until my second son was born. Sometime after that I went to work part-time for the University for a couple of years, and I eventually joined the staff permanently in the Government Publications Department.
And then a miracle happened – I knew someone at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, and he recommended me to the search committee for the job of Director, and I ended up getting that position. It was a nonpartisan position, which I carried out in a nonpartisan manner for ten years. It was located in the Capitol building until 1984, when I designed the new library space in the State Office Building, where it is to this day.
Then for a while I had my own business providing information to businesses, followed by a stint with West Publishing, at first in database management and then creating their corporate libraries around the country. I topped my career off with four years in the office of Governor Jesse Ventura as an information specialist and archivist. I was responsible for saving all his papers and getting them to the state Historical Society.
How do you see yourself being involved at Mount Zion?
The thing for me is that I have a great deal of interest and curiosity, and feel that I in my own way, I lead Jewish life, but when it comes to the rituals, it feels like there is still a hole in me, because I never had those experiences growing up. I still feel like an outsider at times. I never do anything half way so right now I am still finding my way. I feel at home at Mount Zion and today, that is enough for me.
Let’s finish up with a couple odds and ends, do you have any hobbies or skills?
I love swimming and reading, travel and spending time with my family. I am a lifelong activist and currently consumed by, actually passionate about, and working hard to register voters.
Do you cook?
No, but my husband is a great cook. I clean! And I have laundry duty. Together we have a pretty smooth operation.
Final question you mentioned your mother’s paintings – is there one in particular that you cherish?
Yes! She did a painting for me in 1955, and it began as a drawing of Abraham Lincoln, and then she made that into a painting. It’s hanging in our home now.
Oh, and I have lots of music covers at home from the Leo Feist company. “You can’t go wrong with any Feist song.” That was my grandfather’s motto.
Editor’s note: as I expected, looking through our family’s own stack of vintage sheet music later that day I did indeed find several originals from Leo Feist Inc. Including one that seemed appropriate, particularly with Mother’s Day coming up.
“M” is for the million things she gave me,
“O” means only that she’s growing old,
“T” is for the tears she shed to save me,
“H” is for her heart of purest gold;
“E” is for her eyes, with love-light shining,
“R” means right, and right she’ll always be,
Put them all together, they spell “MOTHER,”
A word that means the world to me.