My grandmother Justine Wise Polier wore many hats during her 84 years: Pioneering judge. Advocate for children. Foe of discrimination. Supporter of Israel. Daughter of world-famous rabbi. Wife, mother, friend, author, and artist.
We were very close, and I knew she was a remarkable woman. But it wasn’t until I began exploring the Justine Wise Polier Papers at the Schlesinger Library 10 years ago that I understood, more deeply, her unwavering commitment to social justice and her considerable impact on individuals, organizations, and history.
Combing through the trove of letters, articles, speeches, court cases, and other documents in her beautifully organized collection made me wonder how, as a journalist, I could tell the story of this outspoken, compassionate, and dedicated “trouble maker.” Justine became the first woman justice in New York State in 1935, served the city’s family court for nearly 40 years, and then continued promoting children’s rights through her writing and travels until her death in 1987. She had been featured in various academic papers, book chapters, and the Jewish Women’s Archive Women of Valor online exhibit but had never been the subject of a full-fledged book.
My first visits to the Schlesinger set me on a multiyear, several-city journey that led not to a book, but to a play and an exciting collaboration with the Smith College theater professor Ellen W. Kaplan, an accomplished playwright, actress, and scholar. Ellen and I met through a mutual friend, and she was fascinated by my grandmother’s experience of being a professional Jewish woman ahead of her time in so many ways.
The one-act play that has emerged (Ellen is the playwright, and I’m the researcher/producer) highlights Justine’s lifelong quest to give disadvantaged children a chance to succeed. It shows her ruling against racial and religious discrimination in her courtroom, trying to rescue 20,000 young German refugees from Hitler’s terror in the face of fierce anti-Semitism in the United States and helping establish the Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys in New York—the school where the future heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson discovered boxing and the future best-selling author Claude Brown found refuge from the streets.
Called The Grain of the Wood for Justine’s ability to find beauty in the gnarled driftwood she loved to carve, the three-actor play includes a granddaughter and great-granddaughter who wonder about their own legacies as they listen to Justine’s reminiscences as a “fighting judge” who never hesitated to ruffle feathers to support her principles, even if that led to hate mail or professional sacrifices.
The Schlesinger Library has been invaluable to this project. Over the past decade, I’ve gone through many of Justine’s 600-plus folders, feeling at times tearful, proud, surprised, overwhelmed, and grateful that she saved her papers and gave them to Radcliffe, where my restless grandmother attended college for one year between Bryn Mawr and Barnard and before Yale Law School.
Among the gems in the library is an affectionate but newsy letter from her father, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, written in 1926. He updates Justine about a strike at the Passaic textile mills—where she had worked undercover after college—and then adds several thoughts in his loopy handwriting encircling the typed text. I found oral histories that illuminate pivotal moments and people in my grandmother’s life, such as her evolving friendship and partnerships with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Schlesinger collection has helped us convey Justine’s most important legal decisions, like the Skipwith case, where she ruled in favor of some Harlem parents who, in the fall of 1958, refused to send their children to segregated schools they felt were educationally inferior to public schools that were mostly white. We’ve incorporated the U.S. News & World Report article about that ruling into our slideshow accompanying the play, along with several photos from the Schlesinger.
My grandmother’s papers show that Justine moved in powerful circles, like the congratulations she received from Golda Meir, Coretta Scott King, Nelson Rockefeller, and others on earning the first Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award from Wiltwyck in 1975. But she also saved tributes from lesser-known individuals that I’m sure touched her deeply, like one from a former probation officer who thanked Justine for supporting and inspiring him. He wrote, “No one has had as profound an effect on the course of my life as you have.”
With funding from the Marion E. Kenworthy-Sarah H. Swift Foundation, we presented two staged readings of The Grain of the Wood in Massachusetts in spring 2013, with Ellen W. Kaplan performing the role of Justine. We plan at least two more readings in 2014, including one in Scarsdale, New York, on March 9 (organized by the Westchester Region of Hadassah) and another in Manhattan on March 19 as part of the annual Polier symposium sponsored by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, an advocacy organization my grandmother helped establish. We also plan to produce an audio recording to archive at the Schlesinger for future use by scholars.
Ellen and I hope The Grain of the Wood will expose many more people to Justine’s compelling story and inspire them to reflect—both on the injustices she spoke out against (and which, sadly, continue around the world today) and on the questions inherently posed by the text: “What is a meaningful life?” and “Could I have done more?”
Debra Bradley Ruder is a Boston-based freelance journalist specializing in education and health-care communications. Her stories have appeared in magazines, newsletters, and websites for Harvard University, Boston College, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and other institutions. She previously held communications positions at Dana-Farber, Harvard, and Smith College. She can be reached at email@example.com.