Sixty-five cheerfully painted teapots, as well as several one-of-a-kind quilts, are artfully displayed throughout Dorothy Smith’s sunny apartment in the “new” Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem. She made every one of them with her own two hands.
In her meticulously organized sewing room, she has a stack of soft flannel pillowcases in a variety of whimsical patterns, some in progress and others folded and waiting to be gifted to the children in her life.
Dorothy has one biological grandchild in Israel, six-year-old Eitan, who lives a few doors down and sleeps over once a week, to her great delight. She also has grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the United States, the oldest of whom is 34.
“If I live another few years I could become a great-great-grandmother,” she observes. Meanwhile, she is an honorary Bubby to the children of various friends.
Family is of such importance to Dorothy that it indirectly led her to take up ceramics in the year 2000. “It was simply something that happened because of circumstances,” she explains.
Eitan’s mother, Mallory Serebrin, owns a large ceramics studio in nearby Talpiot. When another daughter, Judy, was visiting Israel and wanted to do some work in the studio, Dorothy had to come along if she wanted to spend time with her girls. While she was there, Mallory offered to teach her to make a few bowls and plates.
That was the beginning of her ceramic career. For four or five years she sold her creations from home in Beit Shemesh, donating most of the profits to the ADI network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.
Mother and daughter attend an annual ceramics workshop at Tel Hai Academic College, and in 2004 one of the guest artists demonstrated how to build teapots. “I always had a special place in my heart for teapots; I collected them at one time,” she says. “I was just enthralled with his teapots and couldn’t wait to get home and go to the studio and start making them.”
Each pot is completely different than the next, fashioned by hand rather than on a potter’s wheel. “Don’t ask me how I get my ideas; when I start a teapot I never know how it’s going to end up. It just evolves,” she says. “Some of them I copy from pictures in magazines, but with little changes to add my own touch.”
Dorothy grew up in Winnipeg, Canada. Her father, an active Socialist, was instrumental in establishing a Workmen’s Circle Yiddish school that the five Smith children attended in the afternoons and on Sunday mornings.
“I still read Yiddish books. ReADIng is one of my greatest joys,” she says. Indeed, Dorothy belongs to a Jerusalem book club, and owns two Kindles.
Art has long played an important role in her life as well. In 1946, she married an artist who had just been discharged from the CanADIan navy. They moved to Minneapolis where he studied at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, staying for two and a half years.
Her husband then won a scholarship to go to New York to study with abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. Two years later, they moved to Salt Lake City, where her parents and one of her sisters had relocated in the intervening years. Her mother’s sister lived there, too, “so my family was already established in Salt Lake.”
When her marriage ended 30 years later, Dorothy went to work as a receptionist in a large corporation. She worked her way up in five years to become an executive secretary to one of the senior vice presidents. Five years later, the company was bought out and she accepted an offer of early retirement at 56.
But retirement didn’t mean inactivity. At 50, Dorothy had learned to ski, and she took up tennis at age 55. She joined a tennis club and participated in the club tournaments, winning quite a few. She still has the trophies.
After retirement, Dorothy moved to Florida to live near her sister, and the mild weather allowed her to play tennis virtually every day for a few years, until she developed a problem with her left foot that required four surgeries and left her in a wheelchair for a couple of years.
During this difficult time, her daughter Sherill suggested that she come to California. Sherill helped care for her mother, and in turn her mother helped care for Sherill’s baby – now a 25-year-old father-to-be. During her seven years in California, she took a quilting class and made about 50 quilts, mostly for family members. She also studied doll making and crafted 25 porcelain dolls. She sold some, but her daughters and granddaughters have most of them.
All four of Dorothy’s daughters are accomplished artists. Judy, living in northern California, graduated from the University of Utah with a master’s degree in art. Linda, who has a master’s degree in education from the University of Washington and taught school for 33 years, paints watercolors at her home in Washington State. Sherill, formerly a cabinet designer and currently a midwife, enjoys crafts and doll-collecting in her Southern California home. Mallory graduated from Pratt Institute in New York with a bachelor’s degree in painting.
In 1991, Mallory came to Israel to do a three-month program with Livnot U’Lehibanot and ended up working for the organization for eight years before beginning her ceramics. She eventually left to open her first studio.
Israel was in her heart
Dorothy had long thought about making aliya. “My heart was here. I had been here on many trips and knew I wanted to live here. But I didn’t have the courage to do it on my own. When Mallory made aliya, I decided that was the time for me to do it too.”
So after seven years in California, she made the big move. At first she lived in a rental apartment in Jerusalem’s San Simon neighborhood. But three years later, her apartment was robbed and vandalized. She decided to buy an apartment in Beit Shemesh near daughter’s friend Jenni, who had recently given birth. “Jenni’s children are like my grandchildren and I am their Bubby,” says Dorothy.
But life in Beit Shemesh proved physically challenging. She was taking a bus to and from the studio with her teapots wrapped up in a backpack, and walking the hills was becoming more and more difficult for her.
“At that point I was 81, and my daughter suggested going into a retirement home. It made sense and I found a place and moved in, but I soon became aware that it was not the place for me. I was too young for it mentally and physically. After three years I moved out.”
Dorothy moved into her present apartment two and a half years ago. Mallory and Eitan live about half a block away, and Linda and her husband come for two months every summer.
Surrounded by her teapots and her quilts, Dorothy Smith is home.
Text and photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Article appeared in The Jerusalem Post – January 16, 2015