Fay Webern was born on the Lower East Side in 1927, the youngest of four children raised by Russian-Jewish immigrants.
Her father was a garment worker, paid by the piece, and stingy with his money. Her mother did everything from chicken-plucking to peanuts peddling. The children earned money, too, from an early age.
Fay grew up in Lavanburg Homes, a groundbreaking model for public housing, founded by a German-Jewish philanthropist, Fred. L. Lavanburg, who combined the American utopian housing ideal with the English settlement house movement of teaching crafts and skills.
There a Tenants’ Council participated in management. There wonderful leaders — artists, craftspersons, social workers, neighbors — taught the tenants their skills, made sure the children had fun and all sorts of games, and raised them democratically, in the spirit of the philosopher-educator John Dewey. In the basement settlement house she studied modern dance from the age of seven with a member of Hanya Holm’s dance company under Holm’s guidance and dreamed of becoming a professional dancer.
“A Bride in the Forest” (published in Literal Latte) is the opening chapter of The Button Thief of East Fourteenth Street: Scenes from a Life on the Lower East Side 1927-1957 (forthcoming in 2016), Fay’s novelistic portrait of growing up in one of New York’s poorest but most resourceful immigrant communities during the harsh years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Fay’s Lower East Side includes the Gypsy October festivals where Jews could buy wild Concord grapes to make Passover wine, the sprawling chicken market tucked inside a pillar of the Williamsburg Bridge, the Election Night fires, and the illegal poker games in the back room of her candy store across the street, where she waited after school and made friends with the gamblers and earned good money getting a “good luck” tip from the kitty when she sat next to a winning player.
In her teen years she participated in the emerging post-war New York arts scene, a flourishing American renaissance of jazz, painting, dance, and literature.
In adulthood, Fay has had a long career in publishing, rising from copy editor to copy chief at Scientific American, senior editor of college biology textbooks at Harper&Row, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Medical Yearbook, and the revised Random House Unabridged Dictionary.
Upon retiring, Fay signed up with Gotham Writers Workshops to explore first-person writing. An assignment to “write about how you got your name” resulted in the story that would form the first chapter of The Button Thief.
Fay’s writing instructor at Gotham was the essayist Tyler C. Gore (currently a senior staff editor at Literal Latte), whom she credits with teaching her to write “novelistic non-fiction.” Thus began a long literary friendship that has lasted to this day.
There Fay formed a deep friendship with Peg Tassey, a musician and videographer, who has over the last few years produced a series of videos featuring Fay reading chapters from The Button Thief, which are gradually being released on YouTube.
Fay now gives live readings in Vermont at various venues, among them Burlington’s famous Light Club Lamp Shop, a reading which was filmed and broadcast on the Center for Media & Democracy’s CCTV. (Watch it here.)
She was also invited to film an in-depth interview for The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, available on their web site.
(Author photo: © Peg Tassey)