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News In Memory of Yetta Chaiken (1922-2020)

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Jewish Studies Program Director Polly Zavadivker Remembers Yetta's UD Legacy
Photo of Yetta Chaiken

​Photo courtesy of UD Hillel

In Memory of Yetta Chaiken (1922-2020)

by Polly Zavadivker, Jewish Studies Program Director

The University of Delaware's Jewish Studies Program and its faculty are profoundly saddened to mourn the passing of Yetta Chaiken, of blessed memory. Yetta passed away peacefully on April 9 in Wilmington at the age of 97. Our university will always remain in her debt. In 1994, she and her husband Frank (1921-1995) generously endowed a permanent center for Jewish Studies, named in their honor. With foresight and beneficence, Yetta and Frank provided a foundation for Jewish Studies that has sustained its growth as an integral academic program at the university for over twenty-five years now.

Yetta's generosity was legendary. But she will not be remembered for that alone. She was one in a generation. She lived a century, and not only as a witness to American history but as an engaged witness—a maker of history. As a lifelong resident of Delaware she dedicated nearly eight decades of her life to promoting education, civil rights, historical preservation and community-building in this state. In words and deeds, she inspired and enabled hundreds of people—students, scholars, and many others—to preserve, teach and study the heritage of their own distinct communities.

Even a few snapshots on Yetta's rich life should inspire our awe and humility. The daughter of East European immigrants, she grew up in Wilmington as a first-generation American. At a time when most women did not go to college, her parents encouraged her to do so, even buying a used car so she could drive herself to Newark. She entered the University of Delaware in 1939, a time when the climate on campus was fraught with tension for minority students, and Jews in particular. The university denied admission to African American students at the time; Yetta also recalled that some fraternities denied entry to Jews, while others practiced vicious and antisemitic hazing rituals.

In a search to belong, Yetta found an intellectual home in history classes, also earning her degree in that subject. In a course on the ancient world, she said, "my roots took hold," and she embarked on what remained a lifelong commitment to the study of Jewish history. 

Throughout her life she engaged in promoting historical literacy of all kinds. She taught American History at Warner Junior High in Wilmington in the 1950s, and in true pioneer fashion, she created and taught the first middle school-level American women's history course in the state of Delaware. In 2018, when I told her we had offered the first ever "Women in Judaism" course at UD, she was proud.

Yetta also conducted fifteen oral history interviews for the University of Delaware in the late 1970s. Among them is a 1977 interview with Pauline A. Young, an African-American activist and author of the first comprehensive history of the black community in Delaware. Thanks to Yetta's effort and vision, the transcript and audio files of these historic treasures are preserved in Special Collections at Morris Library.

It has been my honor to know Yetta since joining the faculty in 2015. In every conversation with her that I can recall, she always mentioned two things: first, how excited she was to be talking about teaching and studying history; and second, that "getting old sucks." Yet even after her vision declined, she continued to regularly travel from Wilmington to attend Jewish studies classes and programs. Two months ago, in February, I saw her at the premiere of the musical Shanghai Sonatas. As we sat together in the lobby of Mitchell Hall before the show, she said she had enjoyed a long and good life, and was grateful to see Jewish Studies thriving at the university. How can one respond to such a statement?

In her absence, her words sustain me and give me purpose. All of us who have benefited from her presence in the world can and must carry on the work to which she committed her life. That is her legacy. Through these times of uncertainty and transition, it can provide us with a roadmap, a north star, a moral compass.

Community Remembers Dedicated Alumna, Teacher, Benefactor

The following article was published in UDaily on April 22, 2020 by UDaily Staff.

Yetta Chaiken, a 1943 graduate of the University of Delaware, whose generosity to and engagement with the community included important support for the University’s Jewish Studies Program, passed away April 9, 2020, at age 97.

An innovative schoolteacher and lifelong learner, an avid supporter of women’s rights and of the Jewish community in Delaware, Mrs. Chaiken was awarded one of UD’s highest honors, the Medal of Distinction, in 1999. She and her late husband, Frank, contributed a special gift for advancing Jewish studies at the University, establishing the Frank and Yetta Chaiken Center for Jewish Studies and helping build the Hillel Student Center.

“Yetta's generosity was legendary,” Polly Zavadivker, assistant professor of history and of Jewish studies and director of the Jewish Studies Program, wrote in a tribute to Mrs. Chaiken from the program and its faculty. “But she will not be remembered for that alone. She was one in a generation. She lived a century, and not only as a witness to American history but as an engaged witness—a maker of history.”

Mrs. Chaiken arrived as a student at UD in 1939 and found an intellectual home in the study of history, a subject she pursued as a major and later taught in public schools in Wilmington, Zavadivker said.

“As a lifelong resident of Delaware, she dedicated nearly eight decades of her life to promoting education, civil rights, historical preservation and community-building in this state,” she wrote. “In words and deeds, she inspired and enabled hundreds of people—students, scholars and many others—to preserve, teach and study the heritage of their own distinct communities.”

Born in 1922 to Max and Tillie Zutz, Mrs. Chaiken was a proud first-generation American who attended P.S. du Pont High School in Wilmington and the University of Delaware.

She married her high school sweetheart, Frank "Sonny" Chaiken, in 1942. The two of them spent a lifetime of supporting the Jewish community of Delaware as well as many other causes.

Mrs. Chaiken taught history at Warner and Mount Pleasant junior high schools, where she was the first in Delaware to teach a women's studies class as well as an anthropology course to that level of student. She was active in the League of Women Voters, and, after her retirement from teaching, she began collecting oral histories of Delawareans for both UD and the Jewish Historical Society.

She and her husband had a passion for “non-touristy” travel, including many Elderhostel trips. She attended classes every semester at UD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, since its inception in 1980 as the Academy of Lifelong Learning.

Mrs. Chaiken loved being an active part of the Jewish community and supported its causes, including Hillel at UD and the Holocaust Memorial in Wilmington, and sponsored the Frank and Yetta Chaiken Jewish Studies minor at the University.

She had a wide expanse of friends and, even at age 97, she would visit those who were homebound, lonely or in senior living centers who had few visitors.

Mrs. Chaiken was predeceased by her husband, Frank; her brother, Harry Zutz; her sister, Lena Spivack; and her great-grandson, Justin Selekman. She is survived by her three daughters, Janice Selekman of Wilmington, Lesley Kravitz (Paul) of Fairfax Station, Virginia, and Barbara Chaiken of Durham, North Carolina; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Her most frequent lines were that she felt like the luckiest person in the world, that she lived in the best of times (although she wanted to see a woman president before she died) and that she had the most wonderful life.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, burial was private. A memorial service will be held at a later date. Donations in memory of Mrs. Chaiken can be made to support Hillel or the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Delaware. Please use UD’s secure website, www.udel.edu/makeagift, or send contributions to: University of Delaware, Gifts Processing, 83 East Main St., 3rd Fl., Newark, DE 19716.  Make checks payable to: ‘University of Delaware’ and include on the memo line ‘in memory of Yetta Chaiken.’

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Jewish Studies Director Polly Zavadivker
 and the UD community remember Yetta's legacy

Jewish Studies Director Polly Zavadivker and the UD Ccommunity remember Yetta's legacy

4/14/2020
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In Memory of Yetta Chaiken (1922-2020)
 
  • Center for Global and Area Studies
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  • University of Delaware
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