When Dorothy Smith opened the door of her apartment in Beit Shemesh, Israel and invited me in, she gave me more than a tour of her home. She gave me a peek into her past.

The living room, flooded with bright sunlight, was decorated in soft pastels and natural wood. Two large bookshelves dominated the room, filled with dozens of intricately crafted teapots. Several of the walls were decorated with exquisitely detailed quilted wall-hangings. The wooden coffee table was laden with family photo albums and cookbooks on bread making and pastry baking. The corridor wall was covered with awards won in tennis tournaments. Everything sparkled with cleanliness.

At eighty-five, Dorothy still carries herself perfectly upright with the kind of poise that finishing schools in England must have once imparted. She wears a simple, classic skirt and sweater; a gold necklace with a Star of David pendant her only jewelry. She needs no more, for I sense immediately that I am in the presence of a Lady.

One short sentence captures the vision of her priorities: her children came first but she never forgot about developing herselfShe greets me with the warmest of smiles. I am drawn to learn more about the energy and overwhelmingly positive attitude that surround her like an aura. Drawn to hear about the volumes of hard work that gave rise to the creativity I see in the apartment. I hope that this conversation will be the first step of our friendship.

Growing Up

Dorothy was born in Winnipeg in 1925. At nine months old she caught measles and this caused a hearing impairment that was not treated professionally until she was in her mid-forties. "My sisters would tease me saying, 'When she wants to hear, she can hear' and so I labeled myself 'stupid,'" Dorothy says in a quiet voice that hides the immense pain and humiliation she must have suffered for many years.

"I had two bright sisters who went to college, but I was sent to business school. I had a real inferiority complex." Dorothy finished business school, married at twenty-one, had four daughters, and, after a tough marriage, she divorced at forty-five. The day she got divorced, her mother had a stroke.

Surviving Divorce

In the seventies divorce was not as common as it is today and I ask Dorothy how she held out. "It was very, very difficult. I had no support system. My father had passed away, my mother was ill and my sisters lived far away. But I had four daughters to raise, two were still little, and that kept me going until I found myself," she says.

One short sentence captures the vision of her priorities: her children came first but she never forgot about developing herself.

Dorothy made raising her children her priority in life. While she demanded high standards, she was involved in every aspect of their lives. "We often had my daughters' teachers over for dinner," she says. Today each of Dorothy's daughters is an accomplished woman in her own right, standing witness to the saplings she so lovingly nurtured. Every daughter followed their mother's footsteps and pursued higher education.

In view of Dorothy's artistic flair, it is not surprising that each girl developed some creative facets: Linda is a school teacher and an artist; Judy is a book artist, Sherill who designed the kitchens of multi-million dollar homes, is now a midwife; and Mallory is a potter with a large ceramics studio in Jerusalem.

Now that Dorothy has moved to Jerusalem, children are once again a priority in her life and she spends her afternoons enjoying the antics of her young grandson.

Fashioning Springboards

I think of Dorothy's beautiful apartment, bursting with artistry and creativity, and I wonder how she rose from the brink of despair. I cannot fathom the fortitude it took to pick herself up and move on. As she continues to share her story, I see Dorothy's hallmark: Every stumbling block she encountered, she fashioned into a springboard to leap forward, to conquer new ground, to develop new facets of herself.

A Passover Seder Plate Dorothy crafted
A Passover Seder Plate Dorothy crafted

"At this point I was living in Salt Lake City," she says. "When one of my daughters needed a grand piano, I began to bake bagels. At that time there were no bagel stores in Salt Lake City. I told people, 'If you like them, let your friends know. If you don't, let me know.'

My baking experience branched out and I was soon working as a caterer. This lasted for five and a half years, until I felt that I had to be home at night because my children were already older and needed me at nights when most of the events took place. I also had back trouble."

Every stumbling block she encountered, she fashioned into a springboard to leap forward, to conquer new groundAt this point Dorothy began to polish her typing skills. "I took my children to the library and there I built up my speed." I try to imagine changing careers at forty-five with two little children clamoring around me; I give up.

"When I got my first job, I typed at a rate of thirty to forty words a minute," Dorothy laughs, "but I quickly worked myself up and soon I was secretary to the vice-president of the company. The company sent me to college where, with my children helping me with my homework, I earned straight A's and got a Certificate in Management in two years. That was great for my ego. Luckily for me, when I was fifty-five, the company sold out and all the workers were given a generous retirement package and put on early retirement."

After retirement, Dorothy, now living in Florida, found a new interest: she began to play tennis and in her usual fashion of garnering success, she won several tournaments. But of course, another hurdle arose.

"I hurt my foot and had to give up tennis. I had four operations in sixteen months and the specialist told me I had to learn to live with the pain. I moved to California to be near my daughter Sherill and there a neurologist gave me treatments and medicine and after six months I was finally walking again."

Dorothy laughs suddenly and tells me that when she moved to Beit Shemesh she began to have reflexology for hip pain and, surprisingly, the reflexology resolved the lingering foot pain completely.

I wonder what Dorothy did for three years when she was wheelchair bound. When she tells me, I am not at all surprised to hear that she turned this black period into a time of fruition.

"I wrote a cookbook when I was sixty-two. I had it printed and now the only cookbook that my children use is mine," she says proudly. I ask her if I can also get a copy, but she answers that all the copies were distributed a long time ago.

When Dorothy had to give up tennis, she started out on another track. "Since playing tennis was no longer an option, I joined a quilter's guild and got hooked. I took a class so that my work would stand up to the high quality that the guild members demanded. Within eight to nine months after I joined the guild swelled from eight to five hundred members and we had to divide up into two guilds."

I gaze at the exquisite work displayed on the walls of Dorothy's apartment: intricate geometrical patterns are interwoven with flower patterns to create a masterpiece. Each hand-done stitch is formed with mathematical precision that belies a love of order, an amazing ability to concentrate fully on one task and to carry the work through to the perfect end. Not surprisingly, Dorothy's second quilt won the first prize in The Orange County Fair in 1993.

In a follow-up email exchange, Dorothy explains that traditional quilt patterns have been handed down from one generation to the other. These are called Traditional Quilt Designs. "However, I designed a lot of my work myself," she writes. I remember seeing a photo of the quilt she crafted for her grandson in California: a brightly colored collage depicting several surfboards on the ocean. I admired both the work and the fact that Dorothy uses her art to create a bond with her grandchildren.

"At the same time that I began quilting, I studied porcelain doll making. I made twenty five dolls, some of which I sold. Some I gave away to my children and grandchildren," Dorothy adds.

Sometimes we help because it is our duty; other times we help because it gives us pleasure "When I made aliyah (moved to Israel) in 1996, I was seventy-one. I joined a quilter's guild in Israel, but my artistic energy found an outlet in Mallory's ceramics studio. Mallory had also made aliyah. When my third daughter, Judy, came to visit us one summer, we spent a lot of time together in the studio. I discovered that I love working with the clay, molding vessels and in particular teapots. I began to design teapots and create artistic pieces."

Dorothy's living room is a showcase for her talents. Like exotic birds displaying a plethora of color and design, an entire range of teapots occupy the shelves. One is tall and green painted in mottled varnish reminiscent of days gone by. Another one is short, almost squat, and colored in a bold modern design.

One of the teapots Dorothy created
One of the teapots Dorothy created

"I had to learn a little about the physics of pouring tea," Dorothy explains, the spout has to be positioned in the right spot, not too high and not too low, or else the tea won't pour." She points out the teapot that taught her that lesson. The other teapots are all useable, she says. Her favorite teapot, a beautiful combination of black and white swirls, is the last one she crafted after two and a half years of learning the tricks of the trade.

Fuel for Life

After Dorothy has sketched the dips and crests that form the sea of her life, I ask her what kept her going through the tough parts. "I didn't know how hard it was," she says simply. From a young age, she imbibed the principle of hard work. "My parents instilled in me a very strong work ethic. "If you're being paid for a job, give them their money's worth" was what I heard. My mother was a perfectionist and demanded perfection from me. My brother, nine years older than me, reinforced this message. He would say, "If you're going to do it, do it right." Apparently, Dorothy acquired the ability to accept hardship as a part of life.

But Dorothy didn't only work to overcome the challenges she faced; she was able to see the blessing in the pain. "You can usually find something positive when something goes wrong," Dorothy says. "When I was secretary to the vice-president I balanced the drudgery of hard work by going to college. Because my company encouraged its employees to study I was able to get my certificate."

Dorothy shares with me another nugget of wisdom that kept her fueled. "As a mother, I needed to develop myself," Dorothy says. "Going to college was something I did for myself. You have to build yourself. No one else will do it."

From here, I believe, comes her strength. Dorothy didn't complain that she had been treated harshly by others, she took into her own hands the responsibility to mold her soul. She grabbed hold of the hard work ethic that had been instilled with her by her family and built herself with pure hard work.

Growing Spiritually

Dorothy's father, a proud Jew through and through, was part of the Farband, the Jewish Socialist Alliance that was established by Russian immigrants and popular in America in the 1920's. Their home was steeped in Yiddish and Dorothy attended a school where she was taught in Yiddish.

While many traditional Jewish values were imparted, religious practice in a more formal sense was lacking. Despite this, Dorothy gained enough to stand her own in Salt Lake City. Hers was one of the few homes in which a menorah burned brightly in the window at Chanukah.

Years later, Dorothy, then in her 60's and living in California followed her daughter Mallory's spiritual path. "Mallory, after a trip to Israel where she attended a program at Livnot and later at Israelite, had recently become observant," Dorothy says. "I wanted my daughter to be welcome in my home, so I called a Chabad rabbi and told him I wanted to become observant. He made my kitchen kosher." In 1994, Mallory made aliyah and two years later, Dorothy followed her daughter's path once again—this time to Israel.

Helping Others

Dorothy continued caring for her mother until the director at the nursing home told her to ease up before she would be admitted herselfSometimes we help because it is our duty; other times we help because it gives us pleasure. The day Dorothy got divorced, her mother suffered a stroke. "For a week I didn't know if she would live," Dorothy says. When she began to recuperate, Dorothy visited her mother daily in the nursing home, fed her lunch and then taught her how to eat.

"I would do her shopping, but she would make me return the purchases. I did that during my lunch break." The grueling demands of caring for her children, her mother and coping with work began to take their toll, but Dorothy continued caring for her mother until the director at the nursing home told her to ease up before she would be admitted herself.

Never at rest, since making aliyah, Dorothy has used her numerous talents to fund raise. Her baking talents have benefited the synagogue in her neighborhood. She has also held numerous shows to sell her ceramic work.

The money from these shows has gone to Aleh, a network that provides residential facilities for severely handicapped children; Keren Yosef, an organization that provides emergency medical equipment and services; and the Givat Sharet Chessed Committee, which is dedicated to helping families in need.

A Word to Women

To end, I ask Dorothy for something to share with other women. "That's a tough question. Today's mothers are so capable and so educated that they could give me advice," she laughs and I detect the modesty that makes it such a pleasure to be around her. But when I insist, Dorothy says, "Be a mother to you children. Make them your top priority. Give them love. And most importantly, inspire them by doing, by bettering yourself."