Nikki Langer, professor of psychology, accomplished musician, devoted Bubba, voracious reader, early feminist, and champion of everything Vineyard, died peacefully on Dec. 21, 2017, at her home in Chilmark. She was 95.
If age is portrayed as a journey, as is taught in Genesis, she was a marathon champ. The distance she traveled in her life was nothing short of remarkable. It took brains, determination, courage, and strength. She possessed all of these in spades.
Nikki was a first-generation American, born in 1922. Her parents, Eva and Harry Poltorack, were born in Kishinev, Moldova. They immigrated to the United States following the pogroms, anti-Jewish riots that took place in Kishinev, then the capital of Bessarabia in the Russian Empire, in 1903 and 1905. These riots broke out after two children were found dead and the anti-Semitic local paper insinuated that both had been murdered by the Jewish community for the purpose of using their blood in the preparation of Passover Matzoh. Dozens of Jews were killed, many more injured. Women and girls were raped.
Escaping the pogroms and settling in a small apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium, her parents brought little with them. Harry was a furrier by trade, and Eva was a housewife. They spoke only Yiddish, though her father had studied and mastered Hebrew. Neither had much formal education, and funds were scarce. But music was paramount in the Poltorack household, and they put money aside (when they could) to buy a piano and pay for piano lessons for their young daughter.
There were many stories about her childhood. As a youngster, she was deeply ashamed to invite friends over to her home, because Yiddish was the only language spoken, and to her, as a child of immigrants, that represented a backward life — something to leave behind. She was anxious about her own speech and writing at school, fearing that a Yiddish word would creep into her sentences and betray her Kishinev origins. Nevertheless, she persisted, and in persisting she excelled — at academics, at music, and at finding her way in New York City. She was accepted into the highly competitive Music and Art High School in Manhattan. Toward the end of high school, she applied to Hunter College. She did this in secret, without telling even her parents, because they firmly believed that education was not for girls. And when she was accepted, there was considerable disapproval from her parents, but she was determined. A college education was her ticket out of the Bronx — into a new life in a country filled with opportunity. Excelling at Hunter College, she entered Columbia University, where she obtained a master’s degree in music. By that time, she was an accomplished pianist and French horn player, securing her place in the New York City Women’s Orchestra during the Second World War.
In the early ’40s, she met Sydney Langer, a physician from Brooklyn who was a resident at Bellevue Hospital. They fell in love and he proposed. With the blessings of her parents, they were married in 1944. They settled in Greenwich Village. Several years and two children later, they moved to Great Neck, a Long Island suburb with an excellent school system, to raise their family.
Nikki continued playing French horn in the Great Neck Symphony, but soon became restless and eager for a profession. She had been fascinated by psychology, and had encouraged her husband to seek a psychiatric specialty. In the late ’50s, she was accepted into a psychology Ph.D. program at NYU. After completing the coursework for her doctorate, she joined the psychology faculty at Hofstra University in Hempstead. She soon had the reputation of a lively and fascinating professor who took genuine interest in her students. Her classes filled quickly, and she became a mentor to many. There were long lines at her office door. At a time when a woman professor was an oddity on a college campus, she became a symbol of women’s achievements, and a vibrant role model. An early feminist in the late ’50s, she created one of the nation’s first women’s studies programs. And it wasn’t without a struggle.
Her marriage became troubled, and she was divorced in 1967. Shortly after that, she met Jacob Weissman, chair of the Economics Department at Hofstra. As academics, they were drawn to each other, and were soon to become a power couple in the life of the mind on the Hofstra campus. They settled in Hempstead, close to the campus, and became actively involved in the university.
In early 1968, Nikki and Jacob took a vacation that was to change the direction of their lives forever. It was on the Caribbean island of Tortola that they met Eleanor Pearlson and Julie Sturgis, founders of Tea Lane Realty, who were staying at the same hotel. It became a lifetime friendship made in heaven. Eleanor, never the shy one, insisted that Nikki and Jacob come to visit her on Martha’s Vineyard. They did — and the rest is history.
During the summer of 1968, she purchased the Fenner Barn in Chilmark and made it her summer home. She was passionate about the Vineyard, and made a meaningful life in Chilmark. Every summer in mid-August when the Canada geese flew over the Vineyard on their journey south, her sadness was palpable. She often said that the yearly flight of the Canada geese was a reminder that she and Jacob would be leaving soon to resume their teaching duties at Hofstra.
Nikki was determined to find a way to spend more time on the Vineyard and keep her teaching position. She created a semester on Martha’s Vineyard program for Hofstra students with various course options, including ecology and Island life. Several dozen students signed up. It was a stunning show of determination, organizational skills, and creativity.
Eventually, when Jacob retired in 1984, they sold their home in Hempstead and became full-time residents. She was instrumental in the founding of the Chilmark Chamber Music Society, along with her close friend Dee Stevens. She was also an active member of the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council and the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. And she continued playing in her chamber music group with other Islanders for decades.
In 1975, she became a first-time grandmother. Her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Richard Chused never expected much, because Nikki had warned them that she wasn’t good with young children. Nevertheless, she surprised herself as much as her daughter and son, Ken, turning out to be a virtuoso Bubba to her four beloved grandchildren, Ben, Sam, Nora, and Amelia, and to her two adored great-grandchildren, Sylvia and Ozzie.
Another intriguing passage in her life was her journey from supreme assimilationist to member of a secret Torah Society consisting of her and her daughter. As a child growing up in a household of very modest means with uneducated, Yiddish-speaking parents, she had come to reject all things Jewish. Like many children of Jewish immigrants of that generation, she embraced assimilation; to be successful in America was to conceal your Jewish origins. Hitler, the Nazi Party, and Auschwitz were the contemporary events of her generation. It was better and certainly safer not to appear Jewish. Growing up in Great Neck, we occasionally lit Hanukkah candles, but never held a Shabbat dinner. We always had a Christmas tree.
During the mid-1990’s, her daughter began to look at religion — different religions — to see whether any of them made sense. Beginning with Judaism, there was a real connection and excitement. Initially Nikki found this new Jewish identification rather incomprehensible. It was the thing she had tried most to leave behind. But as time passed, she began to show interest in the narratives of the Torah, Jewish history, literature, and poetry. She was an enthusiastic member of the Hebrew Center’s Jewish Book Club for many years. And during the past two summers, she would ask her daughter to come by, and they would read the weekly Torah portion together. She loved the stories and enjoyed discussing the motives, personalities, and psychology of biblical characters. In time, she began to understand that the Judaism uncovered by her daughter was not your grandmother’s Judaism. She had created her own secret Torah Society.
Nikki Langer came a long way from modest beginnings in the Bronx to a full and rich life in Chilmark. Those who knew her cherished a privileged connection. She will be remembered for her many accomplishments, for her kindness to others, for her sharp (and sometimes caustic) wit, and for her relentless advocacy for women’s rights. But most of all she will be remembered for what she gave to the younger generations, her students, her children, her grandchildren, her young friends, her helpers and neighbors — be it wise words, comfort, advice, or a place to stay — she engaged others in a magical intimacy. She was a mentor, a role model to women, a music maker, a voracious reader, and a confidante. As one of her former students said on learning of her death, “This old world seems even sadder without her.” She will be missed, but all those who knew and loved her resolve to carry on her generous spirit.
She is survived by her daughter, Elizabeth Langer (and son-in-law Richard Chused) of New York City and West Tisbury, her son, Kenneth Langer (and daughter-in-law Jennifer Langer Smith) of Takoma Park, Md., her grandchildren, Ben Chused (and granddaughter-in-law Liz Gawel); Sam Langer, Nora Langer, and Amelia Langer; her stepson Stephen Weissman (and wife Vicki); her step-grandchildren Max Weissman and Maisie Nester; and her great-grandchildren, Sylvia and Ozzie Gawel Chused and Kate and Toby Weissman.