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A granddaughter digs deep into her grandmother’s life

  • Judge Justine Wise Polier
  • Justine Polier, right, with her close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Debra Bradley Ruder

When Debra Bradley Ruder was growing up, she often visited her grandmother in Manhattan, where they’d have dinner, or go to a show or visit a museum.

“I really adored her,” recalls Ruder, a former reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette who is now a freelance writer in Newton. Justine Wise Polier always made her granddaughter the focus of those times together, Ruder said: “She always wanted to know about my life.”

Ruder, 54, says she knew her grandmother was something of “a rebel.” She knew that she’d gone to Yale Law School back when there were almost no women students. She knew that, in 1935, her grandmother had become the first woman appointed as a judge in New York State and that she’d been an advocate for neglected children and for the poor. And she knew that her grandmother’s network of friendships included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she’d worked on some of the toughest issues of her time.

“But she didn’t boast about that stuff,” Ruder said.

Now, Polier’s story is being told in “The Grain of the Wood,” a play written by Ellen W. Kaplan, chair of the Smith College theater department. Ruder, who contributed extensive research about her grandmother’s life and career, collaborated with Kaplan on the play.

A staged reading of “The Grain of the Wood” will be presented Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. The reading — performed with three actors, plus props, costumes and slides — is a benefit for the Northampton-Amherst chapters of Hadassah, in support of the medical services, research and training at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem.

Kaplan, who plays Polier, describes her as “a force of nature. I want people to know about her.”

600 folders

About 10 years ago, Ruder decided that she wanted to learn more about her grandmother’s life. Polier, who died in 1987, had donated her papers to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge.

And so, one day “I wandered over,” Ruder said.

She found close to 600 folders filled with letters, newspaper clippings, speeches, legal opinions and written materials about the causes Polier had championed, including juvenile justice, women’s rights, Judaism and Israel.

“She saved everything and thank goodness she did,” Ruder said.

Ruder, realizing that the papers were a window on Polier’s times, spent countless hours poring over the contents of those folders, and did additional research at other places, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. She also tracked down and interviewed people who had known and worked with her grandmother.

“There were definitely people who found her to be intimidating,” Ruder said. “She was called ‘the fighting judge,’ but I think she was also the caring judge.” As a judge in what was then called Domestic Relations Court, Polier saw the effects of poverty and the lack of services for families living on the edge and, especially, for troubled boys.

“I think her gift was that she saw each child who came before her in court as an individual,” Ruder said, “and she wanted to know what each one had done and why.”

She saw her role as advocating for rehabilitation, not simply meting out punishment, Ruder said. In the 1940s, Polier, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, got involved in running the Wiltwyck School for Boys in New York, a residential institution for boys who’d gotten into trouble and had no place to go.

Ruder initially considered writing a book, but realized it could turn into an overwhelming task. “I knew I had to find an angle,” she said.

She found her answer through her longtime friendship with Marcia Burick of Northampton. At Burick’s suggestion, Ruder met with Ellen Kaplan, an actor and playwright at Smith, who proposed using the material to create a play.

Kaplan’s play has three characters — Polier, a granddaughter (based on Ruder), and a great-granddaughter, who is a made-up character — who are reflecting on Polier’s life. The challenge, Kaplan said, was to find “a dramatic arc, to find the woman behind the accomplishments,” to ask what Polier might have thought and felt about her own life, and what her story might mean to her descendents.

Though the play tackles serious subjects, Kaplan “has done a great job of weaving in humor,” Ruder said, to convey Polier’s rebellious nature. Always one to chafe at strict rules that governed women’s behavior in her day, Polier once jumped out of a dorm window at Bryn Mawr College to get outside. And scenes in which she gets caught working undercover in a textile mill to expose working conditions there are both serious and funny, Ruder said.

A child saved

The play also addresses a major event in Polier’s life when she confronted failure. An effort to rescue 20,000 Jewish children from Germany before World War II foundered when Polier, Roosevelt and others involved couldn’t overcome bureaucratic indifference and delays. Polier was able to adopt one 10-year-old who had escaped Hitler’s reach — and that girl became Ruder’s mother.

So what would Justine Wise Polier say about being the subject of a play?

“I think she would be a little embarrassed by the attention,” Ruder said, but pleased that it grapples with the issues she cared about most — children’s rights, injustice, intolerance and discrimination. “She was always pushing the boundaries for what she believed in.”

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at swilson@gazettenet.com.

“The Grain of the Wood,” with Ellen Kaplan, Sandra Blaney and Carissa Dagenais, will be presented Saturday at Congregation B’nai Israel, 253 Prospect St., Northampton. Reception at 7:30 p.m.; the play follows at 8:30 p.m., followed by short talk with Ruder and Kaplan. Suggested donation is $25; no charge for students. For reservations or information, contact Hadassah co-presidents Henia Lewin at hennylewin@yahoo.cm, 253-8836; or Barbara Goldstein at bhgoldstein@comcast.net, 549-0555.

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