Benna Kolinsky – April 24th, 2009

GEDC0161I met with Benna Kolinsky at her lovely home on Mountain View Rd. It was such a beautifully sunny day that we sat on the deck and began our chat over a nice cup of tea…
Benna was born in the late forties in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Americans, both of whose parents had come over from the Ukraine in the old U.S.S.R. They were Ukrainian Jews and she was brought up in the Jewish faith with not only her Grandparents living in the house but her Great Grandmother too. Brownsville had a large Jewish community and her grand father was a tailor as were many others in the area. However, he branched out into a successful decorating profession with Benna’s father and his other son. Benna remembers they had lots of materials around the home but not the stuff you would use for clothes – she made them anyway – “Some of my skirts were made out of upholstery materials yet I still managed to be voted ‘Best Dressed’ at my High School.”
At the age of five, when her brother was born, the family moved to Coney Island and Benna remembers the famous Boardwalk and amusement park well. However,  they soon left this bad neighborhood – “my mother did not want me to go to the local school.” The family was not as religious as others – “We were more ‘High Holiday’ Jews but we were very spiritual and followed many Jewish traditions. My parents were surprised that I wanted to have a bat mitzvah (girl blessing) as this was very rare for girls in those days but my grandparents and great grandmother were pleased. Then I upset them by dropping out of Hebrew School and the family ‘joke’ was that I had fallen down my Great Grandmother’s totem pole of favorites from near the top to being un-carved and underground
When she was ten the extended family all moved again, this time to the south shore of Long Island and “it seemed like we had left the planet”. She went to the suburban district of Belmore where Benna attended Mepham Junior and High School. “I liked school but living there was boring and if you ever did anything ‘wrong’ somebody would always tell your parents so I’d catch a train with friends and go to Manhattan where you could easily be anonymous.  I was a bit of a ‘naughty’ kid I suppose. I remember hitching to Florida and telling my parents I was staying with a friend. She found out where I was and called, saying, ‘Drop dead and don’t come home.’ I did make my parents mad sometimes and my brother, the ‘good child’ told me it upset the household when I did. I just didn’t like rules…I wanted to get away when I graduated in 1964 and so after receiving a Regents’ Scholarship which could only be used within the State, I went as far away as possible – to the University of New York in Buffalo where I studied Education and Philosophy.”
Growing up in the concrete world of Brooklyn, Benna’s parents wanted their kids to experience a different environment. “In the summers our whole family and many friends, perhaps forty people or more, would go to Hyde Park in the countryside and stay in cabins. Everyone knew everyone else. The mothers and children would stay all summer and the fathers would come for weekends as they had to work Monday to Friday. My grandparents were also there of course – I loved to get a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato from my grandmother. It was a very matriarchal society and growing up with my extended family was a big influence on me. These visits to the countryside also led to my appreciation of a ‘land-based’ lifestyle – we could run and run in the woods; I really learned to love nature and the countryside in those years.”
At college Benna really thrived. “I liked it a lot and it opened my mind to many things. The Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) were very active and whilst I did not join them I did become quite political at college. I supplemented my income with a job as the hat-check girl at the Student Union building. It was very cold there and people all wore headgear. It was a fun place to work – I saw all the ‘goings-on’, who was with whom, I had a sideline ‘selling secrets’!”
Benna met future husband Danny Mandelbaum at University although it was not love at first sight. “No it wasn’t. He was quiet and so smart – it was a bit unnerving. In fact I remember telling my roommate that ‘if that guy calls tell him I’m not in!’ I had a change of heart at some point, when his real side came out, and we fell in love, moving in together for my senior year.”…Benna graduated in 1968 and began teaching 1st grade in a Polish-suburb just outside Buffalo. “There was much racial hostility between the Poles and the black community and the school principal did not like my liberal leanings. She said and did some terrible things so when Danny graduated from medical school I wanted to get away. I told the Principal I was going to San Francisco – it was the place to go if you thought like we did – and she said, ‘You belong there – the land of Sodom and Gomorrah!’ Danny got an internship at Mt Zion Hospital in S.F. and off we went.”
Benna found a job with the Multi-Cultural Institute that was a public school where the student body reflected the ethnic make-up of the city in terms of the percentage of each population that attended the school. “It was great idea in principal but in practical terms it did not work out very well and it became filled with ethnic tensions. I lasted a year and then went to teach at a Jewish School at which my 1st grade class was only 30% Jewish. I managed to upset the authorities there when I put up a Christmas tree at Christmas.”
It was the early seventies and Benna was tired of teaching so she enrolled at S.F. State Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Creative Arts program. “I was into weaving and dancing and it was a very ‘sixties’ curriculum with most of our classes consisting of ‘Happenings’ where we’d meet at a venue somewhere in the City and act out a ritual of some sort…After my first year my father passed away and we went back to the East coast to take care of stuff. Danny had been accepted to do his residency at Yale and we moved into a commune of about fourteen people with space to roam around on the edge of the woods.”
On our return to the Bay Area the idea for Benna’s thesis was presented to her by Professor John Collier Jr. He wanted her to do a Visual Anthropology project in Ecuador. This was to be a follow-up to his own studies there twenty years earlier She agreed and sold her looms and bought photography equipment and took a photography course. “I couldn’t even load a film before that.” She was off on a completely new track – ‘I’m a Gemini”, she told me…
So in 1973, Benna and Danny set off for Otavalo in Ecuador, taking Spanish classes in Mexico on the way. “It was a gorgeous place, very spiritual – it reconfirmed my desire for a land-based lifestyle. Things had changed a lot since my professor had been there, when the Indigenous people were virtual slaves. Using his book and its photographs as my ‘in’ I slowly began to make contacts with the local people. My philosophy with photography is to build a relationship with the person whose picture you are taking and this I managed to do. They trusted me – helped by the fact that I gave them copies of the pictures I took – and I was invited to all their ceremonies and rituals. I felt very awkward at first when it came to taking photographs at funerals yet they wanted me to. Their concept of death is very different to ours…The people made my study for me and it was an amazing, wonderful experience…The indigenous people’s plight had much improved in the twenty years and they had begun to own their haciendas and then when we returned there a couple of years ago we found that they now own part of the town. In a world where life is so dismal in many places I think South America is a continent going through many exciting and positive changes. Many of the people in power seem to be trying to help their people.”
Benna’s photographs went on exhibit at the De Young Museum in S.F. alongside a Rockerfeller collection – “the poster had ‘John D. Rockerfeller’ written next to ‘Benna Kolinsky’!”, before going over to London, with the proceeds helping with indigenous people’s causes. Following her return she worked both as a portrait photographer, selling her work to galleries, and also for the ‘Indigena’ paper in Berkeley that highlighted the struggles of Indian groups.
“From our time in Ecuador and then in Connecticut, where we took classes on ‘How to live in a Community’, we had become fascinated with the healing surroundings of the communal lifestyle and so we settled down with three other couples in a house in Berkeley.” It also influenced a very important step for Benna and Danny. “We didn’t want kids – why would you want to bring them into a world that was so messed up? However being around kids in the commune changed our minds and we came round to thinking that the world needs good souls to live in it.” Meanwhile, they had begun to look for a place to live in a rural environment to satisfy Benna’s desire for that ‘land-based’  existence. In 1979, after looking all over the northwest States of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, as well as Northern California, they found and bought property on Mountain View Road. “It was so beautiful here and our friends had bought some property already.” Soon afterwards son Chaya was born followed by brother Mohahn in 1981. The former is now a successful labor lawyer in New York whilst ‘Mo Mandel’ is getting increasing acknowledgment on the stand-up comedy circuit.
During a period of ‘just’ being a Mom, Benna made friends amongst the other mothers of similarly aged children – “This was another communal group who became close friends, with Lynn Archimbold as everyone’s babysitter – you were lucky to get your kids to her”. She then returned to work as certified massage practitioner and spent fifteen years at the Mendocino Community Health Clinic in Ukiah. She also taught a class, Fitness for Healthy Living’ at Mendocino College. “I have always been blessed with amazing mentors and teachers and love the fact that my profession matches my spiritual side. In my work all I do is try to bring out people’s awareness of their own best qualities.”
“Living here I feel very nurtured in my connection to the earth. We are blessed to live here and this feeling led to the recent Rain Dance ritual that I organized. During the drought one day I was overwhelmed by the earth’s beauty and wanted to do something to help. We needed rain and I thought that if I could get people to focus on this at the same time we might be successful. I made many calls to many people I know in the community and there were rituals all over the county in early February. It was a success…I believe we can use ritual and the creative arts to solve many problems, including political issues, and it provides a non-linear way to getting to where we perhaps understand things better. I’d like to do more.”
In previous years Benna was involved with the Schools Outreach Dance Series that saw the likes of the Alvin Ailey Dance Troup and the Harlem Dance Group appear in the Valley. These days Benna continues to be involved in many groups working towards various goals. She is on the Board of Directors of the Wellspring Renewal Center; she is the Spanish Interpreter for the A.V. Food Bank; on the Mendocino Community Enrichment Board that offers grants for projects that are deemed to enrich the county; and is on the board of the A.V. Angel Fund, giving out small grants for those in emergency financial situations. Of course her main activity is her business, ‘Move into Health’, a massage, movement, and expressive arts program. “With the financially difficult times we are in, I am offering every fourth massage totally free and if you come with two friends one of your group will get a free massage after the first massage. I hope my mind and bodywork will lead people to enjoying their juicy, flexible being-ness. It is there for us all – it just needs to be tapped in to.”
I know asked Benna for her responses to some of the issues frequently discussed in the Valley…The Wineries? – “I appreciate the wineries but I like diversity in everthing and we have all that we need. The American Indians would not change anything for seven years when they arrive in an area so perhaps new people should be aware of where they are. I’d hate to thing Hwy 128 West will become like Hwy 128 East.”…”The A.V.A.? – “I used too think it was too harsh – the negativity was not necessary. It has now changed and seems to be more inclusive of the Valley as a whole. It’s good that we have a local paper and Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella are excellent writers. I enjoy the new literature they include sometimes…and of course your Interviews!”…The School System? – “Our teachers do a very good job. However, if the school does not suit the child’s needs, or if the child is unhappy then the responsibility of the parent is to the child and you may have to move them somewhere else. Both of our kids went to elementary and Junior High here in the Valley, but just the one spent some time at our High School for a time. A problem with a small school is that there is one teacher for each subject. If the child does not get along with that teacher then there are no options – grades suffer, he may do poorly at other subjects as a result. I felt this was the case for our youngest so he went to Ukiah. Chaya was at the High School for two years but was unhappy here and wanted to go to a bigger school. I think it is a child-by-child issue.”…As for a Mayor of the Valley? – “I think ideally it would be better with some sort of revolving committee. In Bali the person in charge of water decisions has to make sure everyone else gets a fair amount of water before he gets any. Some American Indians believe that their leader has no more wealth than the poorest member of the tribe…Perhaps we should have a ‘Goddess of the Valley’ to sort this out.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Benna many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I have a few – juicy, luscious, authentic, and a Spanish word – ‘duende’ – which is that inner passion of flamenco dance.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When someone calls a person an ‘idiot’ – particularly if it comes from a parent to a child. I hate any words that take away a person’s self-esteem.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Nature, random acts of passion, human goodness, dancing – especially the intimacy of partner dancing.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – Human greed, war, lack of compassion for others, the destruction of nature, mean-spirited gossip, paying taxes for stuff I don’t support.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “Laughter…The sound of a giggling baby.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – Every word out of my husband’s mouth  when he is watching his pathetic Bay Area sports teams flailing. He thinks he has developed more of a Zen attitude but I’ve yet to hear it. I just close the door and try to drown him out with my music as I dance.”

What is your favorite curse word? – ‘According to my family I don’t really swear but I know I do. I say “fucking asshole” quite a lot when I hear annoying political stuff. I guess my anger will sometimes come out when I’m listening to the radio as I’m driving.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A novel by Nicole Krauss – ‘The History of Love’ –it’s set in the Ukraine and Brooklyn.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I love to garden…Dance too. Although my work is a profession it is just like a hobby.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A Fairy Godmother with the job of coming into people’s dreams and helping them get in touch with their higher selves before they wake up changed for the better, unaware of anyone affecting that change.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Work in the prison system.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I have been blessed with too many to single any out.”

What was the saddest? – “My father’s passing when he was just forty-six. My mother also died young – at fifty-nine. It is sad to have lost them both so early.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I think it’s that I know the parts of me that I’d like to change without judging them. I accept them. I embrace them and work with everything I know, including prayer sometimes, to turn them into attributes that are positive.”

Finally, Benna, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “’Good going, girl…Now that you’re here, let’s party before we send you out again!”

Published in: on April 27, 2009 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  

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