By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – Judge Justine Wise Polier was a force to be reckoned with.
The first female judge in New York State. Polier was a longtime champion of children’s rights and social justice. The daughter of noted Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and children’s rights advocate Louise Waterman Wise, Polier was also a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Judge Polier’s story will told during a dramatic reading of the play The Grain of the Wood: The life of Judge Justine Wise Polier, on Saturday, April 27 at Congregation B’nai Israel. The event is a part of the Northampton-Amherst and Greenfield Chapters of Hadassah Spring Donor Evening. The evening will include a donor reception at 7:30 p.m. The play will begin at 8:30 p.m.
The Grain of the Wood, was written by playwright Ellen W. Kaplan, chair of the Theatre Department and Professor of Acting and Directing at Smith College, in collaboration with Polier’s granddaughter, Debra Bradley Ruder.
Based in Boston, Ruder is a former Northampton resident and was a reporter for the in the early 1980s.
Ruder began doing research on her grandmother’s papers ten years ago.
“I worked at Harvard for years as a writer and editor and I knew that my grandmother had left her papers to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. I just went over there one day to see what was there and I discovered 600 folders of papers – letters and court papers and speeches and newspaper clips and photos. She saved a lot,” Ruder recalled.
Justine Wise Polier was a judge in the family courts in New York for almost 40 years. “She was really a champion of children’s rights,” Ruder said. “Her life was really dedicated to improving the lives of children, whether they came through her courtroom or beyond her courtroom. She absolutely could not stand anything that smacked of discrimination or intolerance. She was a forceful and outspoken woman. She was really a pioneer.”
Judge Polier helped to found the Wiltwyck School in New York for delinquent boys in the 1930s.
“She saw that black, Protestant boys who were coming through her court room because they were delinquent really didn’t have a place to go,” Ruder explained. “Adoption and foster care agencies didn’t want to place them and there was no place decent for them to go where they would be cared for. So she went to the city and harnessed her resources and they opened this school for black, Protestant delinquent boys.
“It was a place where kids could thrive. My grandmother believed in rehabilitation over punishment, so she did everything in her power as a judge to help kids who were in trouble turn their lives around.”
Growing up in New York as the daughter of the influential Rabbi Stephen Wise, Justine met many important people “floating in and out” of their home. One was Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a close friend and supporter of the Wiltwyck School. Roosevelt invited the young residents of the Wiltwyck School to Hyde Park for picnics and holiday celebrations. Polier’s papers include photos of Roosevelt reading to the young boys and even serving them hot dogs.
Ruder spent several years going through the papers off and on, learning more and more things that she hadn’t known about her beloved grandmother.
“I thought that there was a book there, but I didn’t know what kind of book and what the focus should be,” Ruder said. “I was really intrigued by her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt so I went to Hyde Park to the Roosevelt Library and looked at the papers there. I went to New York City and looked at some of the correspondence between my grandmother and Eleanor Roosevelt at the American Jewish Historical Society. Then I got overwhelmed and put the project on hold. I am not a historian and I couldn’t figure out a way to tell my grandmother’s story in a way that would be engaging to the general public. But she was a remarkable woman and I knew that there was a story to tell about her life.”
Three years ago Ruder was introduced to Ellen Kaplan by a Marcia Burrick, a mutual friend in Northampton. Kaplan had been told about Ruder’s grandmother and was intrigued.
“She suggested a play, which was not something I had thought about but I thought it was a great idea, a great way to capture my grandmothers life and to share her essence – what she stood for – with audiences.”
The two worked closely together on the project with Ruder acting as researcher and editor and Kaplan as playwright.
“Debbie had mounds of information about Justine. Here was a woman who published and spoke and produced legal briefs for decades. The materials that exist on Justine are just voluminous,” Kaplan said. “Debbie had struggled with this material and said, ‘How do I put this together because it is a story so worth telling.’”
Kaplan and Ruder spent three years working on the play off and on. It took them a year to go through all of the material they had about Judge Polier and then another year to turn it all into the play.
“We had a great time collaborating and continue to collaborate,” Kaplan said.
On stage Kaplan portrays Judge Polier and two other actresses portray Judge Polier’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, as well as other characters in Justine’s life, including Eleanor Roosevelt. A slide show with photos from Polier’s life runs behind the actresses as they perform the play.
“Ellen is brilliant. She is such a talented playwright, actress and educator,” Ruder said. “I feel honored that she has devoted this much time, talent and energy to this project.”
The play’s title comes from something someone said at Polier’s funeral in 1987. Polier loved to spend time in her family’s rustic vacation home in Lake Placid, where she would carve sculptures out of driftwood.
“They would pull these gnarly hunks of wood from the lake and she would sand them down and oil them and turn them into sculptures,” Ruder said. “Somebody at her memorial service said it was a really good metaphor for how she saw children because she was able to see beauty in these gnarly hunks of driftwood the way she saw beauty and potential in children who came through her court.”
Doing the dramatic reading for the Hadassah event in Northampton seems like a natural, Rudin said.
“My grandmother was very much a supporter of Israel. Her mother Louise Wise was a Zionist, her father was a Zionist, so it seems entirely appropriate. I think it is a great venue.”
The Grain of the Wood will be presented April 27 at Cong. B’nai Israel at 8:30 p.m. The public is welcome. Suggested donation: $25.00; No charge for students.