Another easterner by birth, Sharon and husband Michael (a Racine, Wisconsin native) live in Saint Paul. Their son David attends Carleton College.
Sharon is well-known in the local arts community, including for such things as the play The Tiger in the Room, which she wrote and produced for the 2014 Fringe Festival. She is also active at Mount Zion, including for the play We Could Recall/We Could Tell Stories, which she wrote and produced at temple in 2013. It is a one act play that weaves together vignettes derived from oral histories given by eight congregants of Mount Zion (including recent Human Charles).
Married to husband Michael, the daughter of father Michael, and on her mother’s side great grandfather Michael, Sharon was interviewed recently by Philip … Michael. Close enough.
I was born in Syracuse but when I was little we moved to Buffalo and I grew up there. And the day after I graduated high school the moving van came and they moved – took everybody to Florida. It was like, we’re getting out of here! Bye snow!
I have one sister Lori and my parents are Michael (Schwartz) and Marilyn, who have both been happily remarried to their spouses for the last 25 years.
My dad and my mom are both from Brooklyn, and my dad went to pharmacy school and got a job in the pharmacy department at the State University of New York Buffalo. He had been at Bristol Myers, so he was in industry for just a few years, and his background is in penicillin. Then he went to Buffalo, and I think academia fit him perfectly. He’s a good teacher, and he eventually became dean of the department there. And then when they moved to Florida it was to become the dean of the school of pharmacy at the University of Florida.
So my sister and my parents live in Florida. They all love Florida … and I’m up here.
What was your Jewish experience, growing up?
I grew up in a reform synagogue and the story is, we were sitting down to dinner one night – my sister’s close Italian friend was Anna Marie – and when my sister sat down, she was probably about six years old at the time, she began to say ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost – let’s eat!”. And my parents said ‘Oh no! Let’s get to the synagogue!” But she had no idea what it meant. She had been to Anna Marie’s house for dinner and just saw that her family had done that. But my parents flipped out. They probably hadn’t given it much thought before that. They grew up in Brooklyn where everybody was Jewish.
So I had my Bat Mitzvah, read from the Torah, gave a d’var torah, the whole thing.
When my son was going through it though, I realized what a different experience he had. My rabbi didn’t know my name. It was very cold, frankly. We didn’t have a connection.
A few years ago, when we sat down with Adam (Rabbi Spilker), and he told David things like “I will always be your Rabbi”, and “when you are in college, if you decide to take a religion class, I will pay for your books”. That was stunning to me, that this person would say “I am always going to be your Rabbi”. But I did have a bat mitzvah, and that was really important.
I remember him saying that as well. In fact, I’ve since told him that he’ll also be my rabbi for life. Were you active in Jewish groups?
The other transformational piece of my Jewish identity, when I was fourteen my parents sent me to Camp Ramah for the summer, but I’m not sure why, because it’s conservative. I wrote home every single day for two weeks and said “Get me out of here! I don’t belong here!” They had Hebrew every day, davened every day. And then I discovered – through the arts – how much I loved it. The dancing and music. And I got hooked. Big time. And I got back from camp and decided I wanted to go to Hebrew High School, which was an after school program at the JCC, three days a week. When I think about that now, that’s amazing. So I wasn’t in confirmation, but I was in Hebrew High. That’s where all of my Ramah friends were going. And then I danced a lot, I was in an Israeli dance troupe, through the JCC, and got really hooked into all of that.
What was your experience beyond high school?
After I graduated high school and went to college, I was a little removed, although I worked at the Hillel at the University of Virginia for two years. And I loved that job. It was one of my favorite jobs. I loved the rabbi, and I would do secretarial things, but I would also build the sukkah, or bake the hamantaschen, or help run the Seder, so it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that job.
How did you end up going to Virginia?
When we were moving from Buffalo to Florida, I just looked at the map! So I started looking at Virginia and the Carolinas. My Dad went down early to start his job, so we drove down separately and checked out UNC and Duke and Virginia, and I just walked out at Virginia and I thought this is really beautiful, I could see myself here. It turned out to be not a really great choice though, culturally, it was very conservative. I didn’t really recognize it at the time. I was young and naïve.
A few years later, I went to graduate school in Madison and it turned out to be a much better choice for me, culturally and politically.
But I made it work at Virginia, I created my own major, creative drama. I was premed for two years. And then I said that’s not really what I want to do. What I really wanted to do was work in theater, but I didn’t know what that meant. I wasn’t going to be an actor. Then I sort of discovered arts administration, and I thought this is cool! I could see myself doing this. And I really loved children’s theater. I had a great internship when I was sixteen at the children’s theater in Buffalo, that was like ‘Wow!’. We would go around to parks all summer long, and perform, and the kids would perform with us. That was also one of those transformational moments in my life.
Did you go directly to grad school?
No, I took a couple years off and worked in theaters. One in Atlanta, at the Alliance Theatre. And at a children’s theater in Louisville. I was in the education departments of those theaters. They would work with schools, and families. I think ultimately, my whole career has been about how do you help people engage in the arts. It started with children’s theater and it has grown now to philanthropy, and helping arts organizations be strong, and be able to provide open access to more and more people. So the ‘through line’ of all my work has been around that.
But those were fun years. It was the kind of thing where I had this car, and I would pack it up, and I would go to the next theater. So after Virginia, I did summer stock for three years in the Berkshires, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. It was an awesome, crazy job. You work every single day. You all live together. It’s really intense. There were four main stage shows, six smaller theaters, and a children’s theater. All in eight weeks. It was intense intense intense! And crazy. And fun, and you meet all these great actors. Really great people.
By the third year, I said ‘I’m done with this!’.
Every summer in the Berkshires, then nine months in Atlanta or Louisville.
Pack up the car, move to the Berkshires.
Pack up the car, move to Atlanta.
Pack up the car, move to the Berkshires.
Pack up the car, move to Louisville.
And if it didn’t fit in my car I wouldn’t take it. And I think about that now, and oh my god, how much stuff I have now. I miss those days. Those days when you can just pack up your car and go. There’s something very freeing about that. About not having a lot of stuff. Now I’m just encumbered with it all. All of this stuff.
Then I went to Wisconsin. When I was in Louisville my roommate was a very good friend of mine, we were both talking about grad school. She was going to do stage management, at Virginia actually, and I was going to do arts administration. So I went up to Madison and visited, and I fell in love with Madison. I went there and had an assistantship, and I worked at the University theater, and at WORT in community radio.
What was your question? This must happen to you a lot with these things. Sidebar!
I don’t remember either. So tell me, when did Mike come into the picture?
Mike came into the picture in Madison. I lived on the east side and Mike lived next door to me. He worked for Wisconsin Public Radio, and he had also worked for WORT.
That was around 1987, at the end of ‘88 we moved to New York City. We weren’t married yet. We just decided we would move to New York, and did this drive. I actually calculated the number of hours we would be in the car together, and I thought if we could survive that, we could be married.
You must have survived it.
We were married in 1990. We were living in Brooklyn, but got married in Madison. We were very lucky. Because Mike’s not Jewish, but we met with the reform rabbi in Madison, Rabbi Brahms. He’s not there anymore, but he was awesome. It was important for me to have a Jewish wedding, and Rabbi Brahms was lovely about it. We didn’t know how unusual that was until years later and we moved here, and were involved with a group of unaffiliated and mixed couples. I thought everybody did it, but realized that so many of them had a difficult time being married by a rabbi.
He was ahead of his time.
Yes, he was. And I’ve always been so grateful to him for that. It was a beautiful wedding. He sat down and explained the various ritual parts we might consider. He said he can describe as much as we want during the service. And I said describe it all. Because I don’t think my family knows what a lot of these things mean.
Can you tell me about Mike’s religious life?
Mike grew up Catholic, but he’s been so supportive in raising David, and I think he really appreciates Mount Zion. And he said that, at David’s bar mitzvah, about raising David in a place where questioning is encouraged and supported, and its not about a dogma.
What do you know about your family history?
My grandparents were all born in this country, but all my great grandparents were born in Eastern Europe. On my mother’s side, my great great grandmother was Meryl Ettinger, which is why my mom became Marilyn. Meryl had three boys and a girl, and she sent the boys to America, one of which was my great grandfather Michael. There are a lot of Michaels in my life.
So the family story is that two of the three boys had pink eye – a very common reason to send people back in those days – and those two did get sent back. They ended up in France because their boat had come from Haifa to Marseilles to New York, so they went back to Marseilles – fast forward to the 1940s and many of them are killed in the Holocaust.
So it’s interesting, because my great grandfather didn’t have pink eye, my family thrived in the United States, and the other families perished. There must be zillions of these stories. They’re so tragic.
Where did you usually have your family Seders?
We did some of them at my house. It would be like ‘let’s do the Seder as fast as we possibly can’. At the other extreme, the Back family sent their kids to Ramah, and at their Seders we were lucky if you ate by midnight. Their table would snake through the house, and they would be arguing all night over things. By 3 in the morning Mrs. Back was dancing on the table, after all the wine. And I loved it! I loved it! So those were fun Seders.
And their daughter was Rachel Back. She was about my age, and we got to be friends at Camp Ramah. Now she is a very well known Israeli poet, but I haven’t seen her in years.
Tell me about David.
David is awesome! He’s in Budapest right now, they just left this weekend. He is doing a semester there in a math program. Isaac (son of past Human Robert) is there too. It’s called Budapest Semesters in Mathematics. The American office for the program is at Saint Olaf, so there are a lot of Carleton kids who go. We are going to go visit in October. We’ll be there two weeks, and we’ll be in Budapest, and Vienna, and Prague.
And how about Mike?
Mike has been MPR since we moved to town in 1999. He is the technical director for The Current, which is an awesome job. He records rock and roll bands all day long. They come to the studio, or they do Rock the Garden at the Walker. He loves it.
And how about your career?
I am a program officer for the Saint Paul Foundation, which means I review requests from nonprofit organizations for funds from the community foundation, and one of my areas is the arts, which is how I got hired there, because of my background in the arts. But I also do work in aging services, disabilities, food and nutrition, and legal services.
Right before that, I was working for Hennepin Theatre Trusts in downtown Minneapolis, which is why I got to go Rashi, because I was working downtown for a year and a half. I started the musical theater awards program there … actually I revived it. And I went to see 18 high school musicals in one year, which I should see if that’s a record.
And before that I worked at the Children’s Theatre as the education director, and before that I was at the Ordway, which is what brought me here to Minnesota from New York. I was the education manager at the Ordway. I worked with all the schools, and we did special programs, and we started the children’s festival. Which is now in its tenth year. Which is hard to believe.
Is there a connection or path between those positions?
For years and years, in Madison and New York and here, it was direct service, performing arts. Working for organizations, either producing theaters or performing arts centers, and I was working in education. We worked to make sure that kids get access to the arts. In a really engaging way, so that they feel welcomed. It’s really about them, and self-expression. Not about making kids into artists. Everybody needs access to self-expression. Some kids get it through other ways, and some kids get it through the arts. So I did that for many years.
And while I was at Hennepin I came to that ‘now what?’ phase of life. Like, I’ve done this for so many years. Then I saw something about this job for a program officer at the Saint Paul Foundation, but I didn’t know what it was, and I applied to learn about it. So I went to (Mount Zion member) Stuart (Applebaum) – I got to know Stuart through Rashi – and he was at the Minneapolis Foundation, and he knew the president of the Saint Paul Foundation. And Stuart was super helpful, and he told me what a program officer does, and he wrote a recommendation. So he was a big key for that. I think they were looking for someone with a network, and that’s really what I brought. Because I had worked in so many different organizations.
So I interviewed, and they actually gave me the job.
In the course of writing this Humans series, I am often reminded of Sharon’s play We Could Talk/We Could Recall Stories, which she once described in an article as “it’s a technique, a way of presenting people’s stories straight on. It’s got a bit of a patchwork quilt feel to it …”