By Bettina Aptheker
Ricky Sherover-Marcuse is best known among a generation of political activists from the sixties and seventies as the initiator of workshops in “unleaming racism.” She developed this form of consciousness raising, and conducted workshops all over the United States, Europe, and the Middle East until her death from cancer in December 1988.
A Jew, committed to the liberation of all peoples, Ricky was determined to forge an authentic, socialist revolutionary movement by encouraging both an understanding of the political roots of oppression, and of how it is personally internalized within each of us and enacted, however unwittingly, in daily life.
Ricky was fluent in English, Hebrew, German, French and Spanish, and had such facility with languages that while conducting a workshop in the Netherlands a few years ago, she was able to switch into Dutch in the middle of it. She considered this multi-lingualism a crucial statement of intercultural solidarity.
Ricky was also a brilliant intellectual, formally trained with a Ph.D. in philosophy. She battled with passionate intelligence and heroic courage against the cancer which finally claimed her life. Of all the languages Ricky spoke, her favorite was called “uppy duppy”– a childhood tongue learned with her sister Yeshi, in which an “up” or “ub” is sounded before each vowel in a word. She was fluent in “uppy duppy,” and it was this language Yeshi spoke to her some of the time as she lay dying.
I knew Ricky for almost twenty years, as a political activist, an intellectual, a teacher, and a therapist. She was also a friend: not in the sense of a close personal intimacy, but in the sense of the gifts we gave each other; political comradeship and intellectual engagement. I know too how much I loved her, and how much I alternated between rage, despair, and grief as her condition worsened.
The last letter I had from her, dated October 30th, about six weeks before she died, was telegram-like. It was a style she adopted as her physical life deteriorated. It said, “Thanks for looking at this draft. Some of the info already old… situation worsened… ” It was scrawled on a sheet of lined notebook paper, the top half of the page torn off, and presumably delivered elsewhere.
Several hundred people gathered at the First Congregational Church Berkeley, California in January, 1989, to join in a memorial celebration of Ricky’s life. The strangest thing to me about the evening was that Ricky wasn’t there. In such a gathering surely she would come, show up at the last minute, breathless, laughing, sparkling with a story about her last workshop. Harrison Simms, one of Ricky’s closest co-workers, pointed out that she wasn’t “gone, gone.” No, he said, she was just gone. And somehow that comforted me, settled me down. Yes, I thought, Ricky will always be a part of our communities.
Her work had begun to teach us a process for understanding oppression in all its many forms. And ultimately it was this work that brought us together in that Berkeley church, a mixture of hues and cultures, politics, and lifestyles rarely come together. This coming together was perhaps no more dramatically symbolized than by the joint performance of songs by Emily Shihadeh, a Palestinian, and Lynn Grasberg, a Jew.
As I hugged Gus Bagakis–Ricky’s life-companion for the last eight years–at the end of the evening, I felt both the enormity of our collective grief, and the power of the connections she had left us.