Rita Fecher: The Art of Living
Rita Fecher was a painter, illustrator, print maker, and filmmaker whose work documented the significant political and social phenomena happening around her. She was a teacher whose passion for her students took the form of activism at the height of an era of social revolution. As a whole, Rita's life reflects the challenges and triumphs of her time through her choices, her relationships with people and her work.
Rita was born in 1934 into a large, loving Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking, orthodox Jewish immigrant family in Newark, N.J. Coming from a traditional family, she first experienced cultural alienation growing up in environments not supportive of the ethnic identities and lifestyles of her parents, especially while attending public schools. She married young, at the age of 18 and had three sons by the age of 23 and began adulthood in the role of a traditional wife.
She had the courage to return to school as an adult and was in the first generation of women in her family who sought to realize themselves as both parents and professionals through higher education - ultimately earning both a BA and MA (BA, Rutgers University, 1966; MA, Hunter College, 1973; Certification in Media Arts, SVA, 1978). She pursued her education, under great economic hardship, and through this process learned how to reconcile her ethno-cultural background with her modern reality and how to introduce culturally-centered curricula in an educational setting. From that point forward, Rita dedicated her professional life to lifting the disenfranchised towards self-knowledge, self-acceptance and social power.
Even before her arrival in New York City, she had been part of vital innovative programs, R.E.A.P. (Rutgers Educational Action Program) and later, Upward Bound at Rutgers University - both designed for teenagers that school leaders and guidance counselors had "given up on". These programs were designed to develop skills and career goals for inner city youth through art in order to break the cycle of poverty that ruled their communities. She pioneered a successful process of cultural self-identification by using visual language as a medium for rediscovering their culture identity and many of her students went on to be successful in the art world and beyond.
From the age of 34 forward, Rita Fecher was an award winning art educator for the New York City Board of Education while raising her three children as a single parent. She spent a great deal of her teaching career at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan but at first, in 1968, she arrived in the South Bronx amidst of resurgence street gang activity in New York.
Her talented inner city, primarily minority/immigrant, students came from New York's most troubled neighborhoods. The violence that her students lived with presented her with an opportunity. She realized that a window existed by which students from impoverished and disenfranchised backgrounds could be reached and provided with the motivation necessary to succeed in life. Rita created a unique, nurturing program that pushed her students to develop as artists while examining their social/cultural backgrounds and documenting the worlds in which they lived. Over the years, the people from the South Bronx maintained contact with her and shared their achievements.
Rita's early video documentaries made during the late '60's and early-mid- '70's were designed to acquaint teachers and other professionals with the reality of violence in their students' lives. Her intimate relationships with the "family" leaders enabled her to depict them sometimes as confused and troubled children and at other times, as potentially powerful community leaders.
Beyond her work as an activist educator, Rita Fecher was also an accomplished, exhibited artist in her own right. Within all of her work there is an intense impulse to document. She used her talent as not only a mode of expression or, at times, a money earning profession, but as a way for her to enter social groups or situations and communicate with people from all walks of life and across cultures.
Rita worked as a courtroom illustrator in New York City for several years and ended up capturing moments of some of the city’s most significant cases of the latter half of the 20th century. She was in the courtroom for historic cases ranging from Hurricane Carter's retrial, to the trial of five members from the Black Liberation Army said to have shot two NYC police officers, to the conviction of Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon.
Rita also invested herself in documenting the development of the radical theater and performance movement in America for over twenty years (1960's-1980's). Rita had met the owners of the Fillmore East and Max's Kansas City around 1967 and began coming into NYC around that time to attend LSD meetings run by Timothy Leary. Having cultivated her own community of artists and radicals, she moved herself and her three boys to Bleeker and 11th Street in Greenwich Village for a time. The Living Theater members would often end up sleeping on Rita's floor in the Village when they were in town and she began drawing their performances at night in darkened theaters.
In 1974, Rita moved herself and her then teenage boys into the Chelsea Hotel in order to become even more involved in the creative community that had centered itself around the hotel at the time. As an artist at a time where women were beginning to more fully define their identities for themselves The Chelsea Hotel was a place where Rita could be herself.
In 1988, she was approached by urban documentarians, Henry Chalfant and
Carmelo Diaz to collaborate on a project about the gangs that existed in these communities she had become so familiar with. They were made aware of Rita by Benjy Melendez, former President of the Ghetto Brothers. A trust was built through time spent, as she followed the progress of their lives. They shared important aspects of their personal development with her and had been invited into her family’s life as well. China, among others, even lived with Rita and her children for a time, returning to school and then moving on to higher education. The fact that she never abandoned her involvement in the education of poor and minority students gave her the loyalty of and access to these former street family leaders.
Through the intimacy and trust built with these communities we gained access to a group of serious, intelligent adults who may have otherwise had no outlet to share their vision with us. The video documentary created – “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves” – is the only longitudinal study of street gang culture in this country. It intercuts scenes of the ever-present violence in the lives of five gang leaders during the period of 1968-74 with footage of their lives in the 1990’s. It shows their transition from rootless teenagers, who feel that the only family they have exists within the context of their gang, into adults with families who are trying to convince the next generation to put down their guns.
The headline over the New York Times 1993 profile of Rita Fecher read: "SAVING LIVES--ONE AT A TIME." Over a 30-year career as an award- winning art teacher, Fecher made it possible for many of these children to escape ghetto life by creating a program in which her students worked at a very high artistic level. Combining art instruction with political activism, Fecher also pioneered a program which provided her students with a chance to recover lost cultural identities (African, Latino, Caribbean Islander, Russians, Chinese, etc.) through research and production of artistic images of those cultures and how to represent them within a new cultural context. She created a political awareness of the current cultural environments of minority youth and empowered them to use their historical experience in a positive and productive manner. "Not only would they make beautiful art", said Fecher, "it was art that said something meaningful."
Rita eventually retired from the New York City Board of Education, but remained artistically, politically, and socially active for the rest of her life. She struggled with her health for the majority of her life but never let those challenges or limitations get in the way of her goals or her desire to experience life as fully and deeply as possible. She succumbed to liver disease in 2003 at the age of only 69 leaving behind an enormous creative community of students, friends and family.
The immense body of visual work she left behind exists as a time capsule; a collection of images and artifacts that encapsulate a time in the history of New York City, the country and society as a whole. Her three children - Haskel, Avi and Zev - for whom she made incredible sacrifices during her lifetime have established this site as a way of honoring the work of their mother and sharing the story of her life through the art that she made.
Rita Fecher: The Early Years by Haskel Greenfield
Rita Fecher was born on on June 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, USA, in the middle of the Great Depression. She had three sisters, Pearl (1924), Sara (1926) and Florence (1928), who were all born in New Jersey as well. She was born at Beth Israel Hospital. The story has been related that when her father was informed that he had a fourth daughter, he sighed and went into the hospital room to greet his new daughter with the deepest of joy. He then proceeded to raise her with a love of yiddishkeit no differently than if she had been a son. As a result, she received an education that was denied most women in those days.
Her parents, Channah Rivkah (Mandelbaum) Fecher, and Moshe Fecher came from the Old Russian Empire, which today is Poland and the Ukraine, to Newark, New Jersey, in hopes of starting a family and a better life as Jews in America. Her father was born in Zamość, Poland and her mother was born in the village of Macieow, Ukraine. Moshe had studied to be an orthodox rabbi, but was drafted into the Polish Army in 1921. After their marriage in 1922, her father left Poland for America while escaping from anti-semitism in the Polish army in 1922. Her mother joined him in 1923 in Newark, where he had found work through family networks.
They were first and second cousins, following the custom of the times for marrying cousins. The marriage was an arranged marriage between the children of sisters. But, after they were wed they fell in love and had a very long and happy marriage. As Channah Rivka told her daughter, Rita, about why she had agreed to the marriage (she could have refused), she responded that "she loved his kindness and his willingness to share his learning". They shared their love throughout their marriage until Channah Rivka's death (1976).
Rita was the baby of her family and everyone loved her for it. She was always given the extra sweets, the best pieces of meat, and was always loved and adored by all who met her. Although her sisters, Pearl, Flo and Sara were jealous at times they loved their baby sister more than anything. Rita was always given the most of all the children because the Great Depression was ending by the beginning of World War II. Although there was a war going on in Europe during her most of her childhood, she always grew up with more than her sisters. The older sisters grew up during the Great Depression, when there was very little money beyond what could be used for food and clothing.
During World War II, Rita volunteered with her sisters at the local USO (right). She was the youngest hostess and helped the various servicemen passing through on the way to war to pass the time and be a little less homesick.
Rita went to high school at Weequahic High School, along with her sisters, in Newark, NJ. According to her sister, Pearl, Rita was a top student and achieved an A in every subject (except gym). She was a very bright and intelligent, and because of her superior knowledge and the fact that she was head of her class, she graduated when she was sixteen years old, two years earlier than she was supposed to leave high school.
While in High School, she began commuting after school to Manhattan for Hebrew language lessons at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She was the first of the daughters to learn Hebrew. Her mother was one of the few educated women from her community and could also read Hebrew. this love of learning languages was passed on to Rita who would master Yiddish (the language of the home), Hebrew, English, and French. She was present at the raising of the flag of Israel at the United Nations in New York City in 1948.
In September 1950, Rita entered Newark State Teachers College. As was appropriate for the time, even though she was interested in majoring in Art, she trained to become an art teacher. As her father recommended, it would give her an ability to support herself. Little did he realize how important that would become for her later in life. After completing two years of college, her higher education was interrupted by her marriage at 18 years of age. She was the last of the sisters to marry, and rushed into it without understanding the complexities of the world she was about to enter.
Rita finished two years of college before marrying Moshe (Murray) Greenfield, from the Bronx. He was a Hebrew School teacher at Sinai Congregation in Hillside in 1952. As his student, Maxine Veintraub (presently Maya Walsh) has written, ``He was a wonderful teacher. He made the subject (Jewish History) so exciting. He had great sense of humor and he was really involved in his work and his teaching. .... Then one year the school brought in a new art teacher, and it seemed only a short period of time before they were in love and married, and had a baby, and I never forgot that they named him Haskell.``
Haskel`s recollection about their meeting from his mother was that they were first introduced at a party that Murray`s sister Gilda had brought him to. Gilda was friends with Rita. They met and quickly fell in love, and just as quickly became engaged.They shared a love of knowledge (as did her parents), Hebrew language and culture, Zionism, Jewish religion, and political activism.
They were married a few months later on November 8, 1952. It was a glorious celebration and the entire extended family showed up. It was a celebration of life, especially so soon after the destruction of the family and communities that had been left in Europe. Rita felt this loss keenly as grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives were consumed by the Nazis and their allies.
Less than one year after their marriage their first son, Haskel Joseph Greenfield, was born. The three of them lived in Newark, NJ at Rita's parent’s house for the first year.
After a year, the moved to their own apartment in the same building with Rita's sister (Sara) and her husband (Avram Bejell). They continued to experience the warmth and protection of having family nearby, while at the same time learning to live on their own. It was in this building that Haskel and Ira (Yosef), Avram and Sara's first child, began their lifelong friendship. Ira never lets Haskel forget how he swallowed Ira's needle magnet while still an infant in diapers.
At the same time, Murray was finishing his studies for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University, under the tutelage of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
In 1956, two and a half years after Haskel was born, Murray volunteered to serve in the US Air Force as a Jewish chaplain. Murray was first posted to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and received the rank of lieutenant. Haskel and Rita flew out to Texas after a few months, which was their first time traveling by air. Haskel vomited in the plane somewhere over Missouri, or so his mother told him.
In Texas, Rita experienced for the first time what it was like to live in a non-Jewish world. They enjoyed the privileges of an officer`s life, being able to go to the officer`s club, where Haskel learned to swim and dive off a diving board.She also experienced ignorant anti-semitism when stranger`s in supermarkets would walk up to Haskel and run their fingers through his hair and under his kippa trying to find his horns.
Later in 1956, when Haskel was 3 years old, Murray was posted to Travis Air Force Base in California and after having completed his training, and received the rank of Captain.
Their second son, Zev Aaron, was born their on January 13, 1957. In California, they were given their own house off the base for the first time. Murray was away a great deal since he was the Jewish chaplain responsible for the western half of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) that covered most of the western half of the USA. They struggled to lead a Jewish life in what was essentially a non-Jewish world and gathered around them a group of similarly devoted Jews.
Murray continued to experience ignorance and anti-semitism in the Air Force command, but also found widespread sympathy and support among enlisted and officers. Over time, Rita became homesick for her family in Newark. Coupled with a third pregnancy, she eventually went back to Newark at the end of 1957 in order to give birth. On February 4, 1958, their youngest child, Avraham (Avi) Dov, was born in Newark at Beth Israel Hospital. Murray flew back for the birth and bris, but had to return to Travis Air Force base to finish his term of enlistment. Rita stayed in Newark at her parents.
During this period, Rita had a renewal of the ulcerative colitis that initially appeared while she was a teenager. From this point on, her health continued to deteriorate until she was finally forced to have surgery in 1963. This involved the removal of her colon and lower intestines, which completely changed her lifestyle.
Rita and Murray were soon on the move again. After leaving the Air Force in 1958, they moved soon after to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he became the rabbi of a synagogue in downtown Pittsburgh. They lived in Menlo Park and he walked the five miles back and forth on shabbat, occasionally taking Haskel with him. It was an idyllic time for Rita and the children, since they were in their own house once again with a large backyard for the children to play, and within reasonable driving distance to the family in Newark. Haskel spent the year experiencing kindergarten for the first time in the Jewish Community Center.
After a year, 1959, they packed up as Murray took a new position as the rabbi of the Sephardi Jewish community in New Brunswick, NJ. By October, they had settled down in a house (401 Montgomery Street) in Highland Park, just across the river from New Brunswick, where they proceeded to raise their three children. Haskel began school at Moriah Academy in New Brunswick, while Rita raised the smaller ones at home.
By 1964, Rita's world had disintegrated. She was separated from Murray, and searching for a way to make a living. It was then that she decided to go back to college and finish her BA. She had been teaching art at Moriah Academy for several years and finally had the self-confidence and circumstance to continue her education. She enrolled in the Art Education program at Douglas College (Rutger’s University), finishing with her BA two years later. In 1966, Rita began to teach art for gifted students at East Brunswick High School.