Named Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman Of The Year
CHATHAM — Saddened by an act of violence at a women’s clinic in Brookline, Juliet Bernstein decided to organize a candlelight vigil in front of the Eldredge Public Library, and asked selectmen for permission to do so. When the board denied her request, Bernstein went ahead anyway, asserting her constitutional right and giving the town fathers a well-deserved poke in the eye.
The year was 1995, and at age 81, she was still fearless.
Now 105, Bernstein has witnessed a lot of history, which has only deepened her belief in the need for peace and social justice. Recognizing her leadership, the board of county commissioners voted last Wednesday to name her the Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman of the Year. Like other civil rights activists, Bernstein’s beliefs were rooted in hardship.
“I was born on a farm,” she said. Her parents emigrated from czarist Russia. “It was really terrible there,” she said. “Jews could not live anyplace. They could not own property.” She fingers an old photo of her father, dressed in an ornate pre-revolutionary Russian military uniform.
“You’ve seen 'Fiddler on the Roof?' That’s really the story of our lives,” Bernstein said. The family fled antisemitism by coming to America, settling in the so-called Borscht Belt of rural New York. With help from a Jewish resettlement organization, the family established a 156-acre farm and boarding house. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and loved the sense of community there.
“There was one black family living on a farm near us,” and they became friends. There were just two Jewish families in the area, and the rest were white Christians, “but everybody got along,” Bernstein recalled. There was no discrimination, and families worked together to try and make ends meet. She was seven years old when the 19th Amendment was adopted, giving women the right to vote. She remembers traveling with her family six miles to the polling site in a horse-drawn surrey.
Education was always important in her family, and Bernstein passed the regent’s exam and was enrolled in high school when she was 11 years old. Her mother was a strong influence, having come to the U.S. from Russia when she was 12 with no formal education, working in a shirtwaist factory and learning English at night school. When Bernstein was 14, her father committed suicide.
In 1931, Bernstein read the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teens from Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women and who were lynched by a mob before a trial could be held.
“I wouldn’t say I was a real fighter, but I was appalled by that,” she said.
Bernstein was part of the second graduating class of Brooklyn College, and went to Columbia University Teacher’s College for her graduate degree. She graduated during the Depression and couldn’t find a job.
“For awhile, I was selling the New Yorker,” she said with a gruff belly-laugh. Bernstein’s mind jumps between amusing chapters of her life, recalling them in remarkable detail, and frequently with laughter. She developed a passion for home economics, and went back to school to study to become a dietitian before taking jobs as a public school teacher in New York City. She was married to Selig, who was also a teacher, in 1937.
Bernstein taught nutrition and inspired a love of cooking in her students – both boys and girls – for many years. In 1960, Seventeen magazine and Macy’s held a promotional contest for the best menu and table setting. Inspired by the just-concluded winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., her students crafted an ornate centerpiece that featured a snowy scene complete with a skating rink. “They put little figures on it it, too,” she said. The judges were impressed and awarded her class First Place in the national competition. They earned the honor the following year as well.
Bernstein loved teaching, but knew she was preparing her female students for a fairly limited future.
“The schools in which I taught were to prepare girls to go to work, not to go to college. Nobody thought about that,” she said.
In 1971, she and Selig were on sabbatical and, waiting for passage to Martha’s Vineyard, decided to drive around the Cape.
“We came here quite by accident, really,” she said. They saw a newspaper advertisement for a new housing development called Riverbay and scrapped plans to settle in Pennsylvania in favor of moving to Chatham.
“I really became active here,” Bernstein recalled. In the paper, “I saw that there was a League of Women Voters’ meeting,” and decided to go. In her 50s, she was the youngest member of the group and was recruited for a number of projects. She gravitated toward issues of social welfare and gender equality. Until 1972, except for married couples, “contraceptives were not even legal in Massachusetts,” she noted. Bernstein said she is deeply troubled by the recent passage of restrictive abortion laws in states like Alabama.
Troubled by the nuclear arms race and Three Mile Island, Bernstein led an effort to have Chatham declared a nuclear-free zone, a symbolic effort that, at first, failed at town meeting. She was back the following year, backed by a team of volunteers that included some members of the military.
“Military people know the dangers,” she said. Today, Chatham is on the books as a nuclear-free community.
Bernstein led an effort to allow women to participate in the Chatham Town Band, and in 1993, she was honored by the Cape Cod Chapter of the NAACP for her “unyielding dedication to human rights.”
The League of Women Voters became a jumping-off point for a variety of other activities and inspired Bernstein to join the new Cape Cod Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She eventually led the group, writing its monthly newsletter until recently. The Fellowship invited scholars from places like Peru, Guatemala and Panama to visit Chatham, and Selig supported her work.
“He always did,” she said, smiling. He died suddenly on Thanksgiving day, 1993, while the two were on a walk together.
Bernstein is proud of her family, including her three grown children. Ellen is a teacher of English in California and an avid ballroom dancer; Robert is a mathematics professor; and Bruce is a hospital development professional. This week, Bernstein will have a unique honor: she will be the officiant at her grandson’s wedding. Add to that the news that she was selected to receive the Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman of the Year Award, and the past few days have been a bit overwhelming, she admitted.
On June 5, Bernstein will receive the award in a special ceremony at the Olde Colonial Courthouse in Barnstable village. Lee Roscoe, who nominated her for the honor, said Bernstein is “the very essence of Mercy Otis Warren, a woman who is a true patriot, tirelessly working to improve her nation and her community, to forward equality, civil rights, peace and justice for all throughout her entire life.”
As she looks forward to her 106th birthday in July, Bernstein remains an avid follower of current affairs, and finds lots of troubling news in today’s headlines. But she sees reason for hope, where she has seen it many times in the past.
“Young people, getting involved,” she said.