(1932 - )
Joanne Greenberg acts locally – and globally. Since the 1960s, she has volunteered in our mountain community while sharing her novels and short stories with the world. The author of 18 published works, Joanne not only lends a hand to others in our community, but also has been an advocate for the deaf and the mentally ill across our state and nation.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she and her husband, Albert, married in 1955, decided they wanted to live in a mountain setting with easy accessibility to a major city. So they purchased land on Rainbow Hill and moved into the home they built in 1963 where they raised their two sons. They still live there (2014) though the city has grown up around them.
Joanne’s volunteer work is as varied as the subjects of her novels and includes service on the Lookout Mountain Fire Department, co-founder of Congregation Beth Evergreen, sign language teacher and interpreter, Hebrew tutor, storyteller and visitor to Jewish inmates at Canon City.
How did she get involved in so many different kinds of activities? “Everything that ever happened to me, I fell backward into,” Joanne says. “I fell into my rescue work, working with the deaf, studying Hebrew…”
“I think my 13 years (1972-1985) on the fire department were the happiest years of my life. I was right at the heart of everything,” she says. She remembers helping numerous victims of car accidents on the steep hills of I-70 and working at the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stone concerts at Folsom Field as a paramedic. There were 80,000 people in the stands and quite a few drug overdose cases, Joanne recalls.
When Albert worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor with deaf clients, Joanne became interested in communicating with the deaf and studied to become a sign language interpreter and teacher. She spent decades working with state mental hospitals to provide appropriate care for the mentally ill deaf. She recently founded a web site, deafinprison.com to advocate for deaf inmates and prison reform. As a result of her advocacy for the deaf, Joanne received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University – the world’s only college for the deaf. Her interest in the deaf also led to her novel In This Sign, which has been dramatized for television.
Teaching has also been a big part of Joanne’s community service. For 23 years, Joanne volunteered at Ralston Elementary, teaching Latin and Greek roots as well as sign language. She has taught Hebrew and Torah to countless teens and adults. Her teaching of cultural anthropology and fiction writing at the Colorado School of Mines earned her the Colorado School of Mines Medal in 1999.
When Bernie Goldman called her in 1974 about getting some mountain Jews together for the High Holy Days, Joanne immediately jumped on board. From the inception of the Beth Evergreen congregation when a handful of families met in each other’s homes to its growth to 200 members and its own synagogue, Joanne has been an active member. Albert built the synagogue’s first ark to house the Torah, and Joanne was the main tutor for b’nei mitzvah (Jewish rite of passage) students for many years. During the High Holy Days, Beth Evergreen congregants eagerly anticipate Joanne’s wit and wisdom as she reads a new essay she created for the Jewish New Year.
Joanne graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a major in anthropology and English literature. She also studied at the University of London and the University of Colorado. She began writing when she was nine “but I wasn’t serious until I was 11,” she says. At age 20, enrolled in a college literature class, she realized that writing – which she had already been doing for 10 years – was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. The decision came despite the discouragement of the conventional women in her family who thought women just should get married and have babies. “My mother, her friends, my aunts all told me that writing is not what women do. There were women writers, but they were all dead – and they weren’t Jewish.”
Albert, however, encouraged her writing and she published her first book, The King’s Persons, in 1963 at the age of 31. Only a year later, she published the highly acclaimed fictionalized autobiography, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, under the pen name Hannah Green. Nearly six million copies were sold, and it was translated into several languages. Her published works now include 14 novels and four collections of short stories. Writing is like brushing your teeth to Joanne – an integral part of her daily life. “I said I was going to coast once I turned 80. But now I’m 81 and I don’t want to coast, so let’s make it 90,” Joanne says.
She writes because “there’s something I want to tell you, but there’s also something I don’t know. There has to be a lot of things for me to find out.” Joanne still writes every morning except Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, using a #5 mechanical pencil. “I started that way – by hand – and there’s something in the moving of your hand to form the letters that bonds you to the words,” she says. The research for her books has taken her into the world of ski law, maxillo-facial surgery, law enforcement and caving, to name just a few. “With me, all the books are different. When I start, I don’t know how it’s going to end,” Joanne says.
“The art of writing I love, the trade is lousy. It always has been,” Joanne says of the publishing industry. With the death of her agent of 40 years, she’s trying to decide if and how to publish her latest works. She has three almost completed works sitting on the shelf and a fourth in progress. When Joanne is not volunteering, studying Hebrew or writing, she can be found at home engaging in one of her numerous hobbies. She makes her own chokecherry wine, pickles, jams and jellies; bakes bread; makes most of her clothing as well as Albert’s; and spins wool, dying it with onion skins gathered at local grocery stores. An alto, Joanne loves to sing with the Renaissance Singers, a small choir that practices at St. Laurence Episcopal Church in Conifer.
Joanne has two collections – handkerchiefs and heroes. Her heroes include two deaf/blind people; a German major in the Holocaust who secretly rescued Jews; and the people of Lockerbie, Scotland because of their selfless acts of kindness after the terrorist bomb that caused a plane to crash in their community in 1988.
Though her modesty is legendary, for the deaf, the Jewish prisoners, the students she inspired, the accident victims she rescued, and discriminating readers everywhere, Joanne Greenberg belongs in our hero collection.