The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives.
Lucille Weener grew up in a close Jewish community in the Bronx, New York. The third of four children of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland, she graduated from New York University, where she studied history—a lifelong passion. Lucille married Howard Janis, a print journalist who then worked for IBM, and raised four children in Stamford, Connecticut, where she was active in her synagogue, Temple Sinai. There, she led a years-long tapestry project to create a seven-by-ten-foot Torah curtain for the temple’s ark. Working with three other women, she embroidered what has been heralded as a masterpiece of Jewish folk art.
Widowed at age 42, with her oldest child in college and her youngest in grade school, Lucille eventually moved the family to McLean, Virginia. In 1985, she remarried—this time to a broadcast journalist, Sumner Weener, an NBC radio producer. After she transcribed 35 years of his radio tapes, the couple donated them to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which established the Sumner and Lucille Weener Radio News Collection. (The Newseum closed in 2019.) Today, she works on mosaics—an art form she learned in her eighties—and is devoted to her adult children and their partners and her four grandchildren.
What have you learned in your 90 years?
I’ve learned to be a little more tolerant of people’s weaknesses because nobody is perfect. And not to be as critical as I’ve probably been in judging people. I look at how they help me learn, and overlook the small stuff.
What shifted your view?
As I’ve gotten older, I see the importance of kindness. People have been kind to me who I secretly may have misjudged in the past. And I’ve realized that kindness is the first, most important quality to look for in a person.
What were the experiences that most shaped you in childhood and how did they influence the rest of your life?
Growing up during World War II, I realized how important patriotism was and our love of country. Members of Congress were almost gods to me. We didn’t know Democrats or Republicans. They all were fighting to save the country. We woke up every day praying for the president. That really had an impact on me—I am critical today of a government that I thought was perfect.
Today, [the two main parties] have become like two adolescent sports teams playing each other. The sense of [unity] I grew up with, today does not exist. And also, of course, I was the child of immigrants who thought they came to heaven when they came to America. I felt so special in this country.
Was there a moment in that time that stood out for you?
Yes. A day in June, 1945. Eisenhower came to the Polo Grounds, where the Giants played baseball. I went to a public school in the Bronx and on that day any child who had an A or B [average] could go welcome him. I think I was a B student. The general rode around the ballpark in a Jeep and we all waved at him. And the Jeep stopped for a moment near us and he reached out to say hello. I was absolutely thrilled.
How did the events of war in Europe directly affect a pre-teen growing up in the Bronx?
Everyone we knew had a relative who was fighting. Our apartment was under a family called the Goldbergs. Eddie Goldberg was 21 and a nice guy who had played basketball in the street. One day our doorbell rings and my mother answers it, and there’s a telegram. The man said, “Is this Goldberg?” And she said, “No, upstairs.” She shut the door and said, “Poor Mrs. Goldberg.” She’d seen the gold star on the envelope.
In my own family, my mother’s relatives lived in Zhetel, a small town in what is today Belarus. The last letter my mother got from her family was in 1939. For six years, she heard nothing. Then we learned that her mother, her brother and 12 other family members were killed. My Aunt Sonia and her husband, Sam, and their two little boys escaped the Nazis by hiding in the woods for almost three years. They lived with us for about a year after time in a DP (displaced persons) camp. I couldn’t believe the horrors they went through. To this day, I won’t read a fiction book on the Holocaust because the truth was so awful that you don’t have to make up a story. I was teaching them English. My parents never spoke “Jewish” at home—they wanted their kids to be American. But the year the survivors lived with us, I learned Yiddish in teaching them English.
What struck you most about that time?
I was very affected by how degraded these kids were, almost animals out of the woods. My cousins were six and eight. At one point, my older cousin went to the local grocery store and broke a glass that had walnuts in it. He filled his pockets and he and his brother ran home and said, “Look what we got!” They thought they had a victory, stealing dinner for us. My father explained it to the grocer and paid for the damage.
My mother enrolled them both in first grade because they didn’t speak English. In four months, they put my older cousin in fourth grade where he belonged. He was brilliant. He became a rocket scientist.
What do you want to pass on from that to young people today?
Please realize that you’re still living in the best country in the world. Work to make your government better, because somebody has to.
Is there anything that you’ve changed your mind about over the years?
Being gay was once something you whispered about. I realize now, if someone is gay, it’s real life. A trans person would have been a shocker in my day. It’s real life. I’ve been wrong, that’s all. You have to learn to accept new things and just roll with it.
Who inspired you?
Good teachers. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stayman—she taught me to speak publicly, with confidence. And Mrs. Michaelson in high school, who gave me such a love of history.
You were the driving force behind the renowned Torah tapestry at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut. Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz, the Reform theologian and philosopher, called it “a masterwork of American Jewish folk art… an extraordinary work of stitchery.” How did that come about?
In 1969, I was reading a book called Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. If the Jews in the shtetls had any creative ability, they put it around the Torah curtain. Ours was plain white, like a shower curtain. One day I looked at it and thought, that could be better looking. I can’t draw but I thought if someone could design it, I would do the embroidery.
At the time, it seemed like every woman was doing their little needlepoint pillow, and I said, let’s sew something permanent. An artist friend had the idea to tell the story of the seven days of creation, Genesis, and made a sketch. Four of us Temple women stitched. We didn’t know each other when we started but we sewed together four days a week for five years. Such friendships developed. Everyone told their stories and listened to each other. We still do.
You said that you couldn’t draw, yet you helped produce a work of folk art. Did you think of yourself as a creative person?
No! I couldn’t even draw a stick figure. I just had an idea. The other three women were all very talented artists.
What do you think creativity is?
Originality. Seeing something that can be made better and doing something about it. Inventions. Look, even a tray came from a creative person who didn’t want to carry too much. They made life better by inventing the tray. Or, maybe someone who was just lazy came up with the tray—it still makes life better!
Are you “inventing” anything now?
I work on mosaics. It’s a very good feeling to know that something you make will be here long after you are and is nice to look at.
What do you think of the world today?
It’s frightening. I see there’s an easy way for dictators to get to the top. And people just watch it and don’t think they can do anything about it. They can. Elect good leaders. Make sure you vote.
What problem do you most want to see tackled?
The guns here are a nightmare. When will the U.S. Congress have the courage? It is a horror that they will not pass better gun laws. Whether it’s guns or climate or immigrants, I’d like to know that there are people who care enough to turn around what’s bad.
What has gotten you through life’s toughest times?
Being surrounded by wonderful people makes a difference. I did not feel alone when my [first] husband was very sick. I was at the hospital almost every day. And when I came home, neighbors brought in supper. I said to my husband, I don’t know how to thank them. He said, you can’t, but make sure someday you do this for other people. Be there for people who have troubles. Friendship is so important. Value your friends.