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Martha Harris, librarian, teacher who 'loved helping people learn,' dies at 94

Martha Harris in 2014.

Martha Harris in 2014. Credit: Seth Harris

Growing up in working class, politically left-leaning, and primarily Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant communities in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s profoundly shaped Martha Harris’ life.

As an adult, she marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, was active in her local teachers’ union, helped people struggling to pay rent, and participated for years in a Yiddish reading circle.

“This strong identification with immigrants and the working class and progressive Jewish politics were central to who she was from the very beginning,” said son Seth Harris.

Martha Harris, who had lived more than 50 years in Roslyn Heights, died Monday, apparently of dementia-related causes, her family said. She was 94.

She lived for the last 20 months of her life at an assisted-care center in Kensington, Maryland, said Seth Harris, an attorney who was deputy secretary of labor and acting secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. 

For many on Long Island, she was best known as a librarian and teacher who worked at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park from 1970 to 1991 and then, in semiretirement, for nearly two decades as a part-time reference librarian at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library.

“She loved helping people learn,” said son Paul Harris, 60, of Chesterfield, Missouri.

“She was a phenomenal librarian,” said Carol Kroll Blumenthal, 82, of Roslyn, a close friend of Harris who headed what was then called the Nassau BOCES School Library System. “She was one of the best school librarians in the county. She had a fabulous way with kids. She did a huge amount of teaching them how to do research. More than that she was a lovely, lovely person.”

Harris was born on June 18, 1924, in Manhattan. She grew up there and in the Bronx, the daughter of immigrants from Russia and Austria-Hungary. Her parents were involved in progressive Jewish organizations.

She graduated from Hunter College in the 1940s and about three decades later earned a master’s degree in library science from what is now LIU Post.

As young adults, she and her husband, Jonathan Harris, whom she married in 1948, sometimes attended “rent parties,” to raise money for people short on rent money, said Seth Harris, 56, of Bethesda, Maryland. In 1949, they attended a concert in Westchester County by the leftist, African American singer Paul Robeson that led to what was called the Peekskill Riots, after right-wing protesters of Robeson threw rocks at departing concertgoers, Seth Harris said.

In 1950, the couple moved to Paris so Jonathan Harris could attend graduate school.

After that, “she thought more broadly of the world,” Seth Harris said. “She was exposed to arts and literature and theater and opera that she had not been exposed to before, and food.”

It also broadened her political outlook, he said.

“She was able to see her politics — which were sort of left politics — from a global perspective, not just from the perspective of the people immediately around her,” he said.

Paul Harris spent decades as a talk radio host, starting in Riverhead and for most of his career in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Hartford. He said the values his parents instilled in him were reflected in his programs, when he talked about the importance of unions and “standing up for … people who had to struggle and were failed by the system.”

Harris was an atheist, but her Jewish cultural identity was an essential part of her life, Paul Harris said. She took part in a Yiddish reading circle and volunteered at a Yiddish culture school in Manhasset.

In addition to Seth and Paul Harris, she is survived by three grandchildren. Husband Jonathan Harris, a longtime teacher, died in 1997.

The family was to sit shiva at Seth Harris’ home Friday and Saturday. Harris was to be cremated. No services are planned. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research and Brooklyn-based Camp Kinderland.

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