Miriam Chaiken, Anthropologist

Niece of Westbeth residents Shami, Joseph, and Miriam Chaikin

Shami, Joe, and Molly

Westbeth has many families living here, and many descendants of the original generation, but I think my aunts and uncle might be the only set of three adult siblings who have ever lived in the building. Shami and Joe Chaikin both moved in when the building was first opened, and many years later their sister Miriam / Molly / Chickie moved in to her third-floor apartment. Shami and Joe had apartments on the ninth floor, with Barbara Hammer between them, and all three siblings met for morning coffee and breakfast almost daily.

Living at Westbeth gave them all the freedom to pursue their artistic lives. Joe was an actor, director, and writer, most known for establishing the Open Theater and innovations in avant-garde performance. Shami was a singer, actress, and a member of the Open Theater company. Molly had been an editor of children’s books, and when she retired began a prolific second career as a children’s book writer. All three of them produced art strongly linked with their lived experiences—Joe’s work was influenced by his chronic heart disease and later the stroke he experienced during one of his open-heart surgeries. Shami’s performances were a reflection of her joie de vivre and fearlessness, and Molly’s books reflected her deep Jewish faith and the experience of growing up in Brooklyn in a Jewish enclave during the Depression. All three of them knew it was a true privilege to live in the Westbeth community, and all had great friends in the building. Joe collaborated with Nancy Gabor, Ze’eva Cohen, and others in his writing and directing. Shami’s favorite event in her later years was the gathering of her storytelling group (Karen Ludwig, Christina Maile, Joyce Aaron, Diane Spodarek, Joan Hall, and others), and in earlier years, her daily dinners with Barton Benes while they discussed the latest episode of Judge Judy. Molly loved going to her favorite dive diner with Christina or Lilly Rivlin, or George Cominskie and John Turner, and taking part in art and writing classes. To have such a circle of kindred souls is a true blessing.

I have spent many days at Westbeth, with my family, and now friends I have made, and I feel so grateful that Westbeth provided physical and spiritual shelter for my family. Just as the pandemic took hold in New York, the last of the Chaikins left the community with Shami’s passing, but for the first fifty years there was at least one of the family in the building.

SHARE:Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on Pinterest