Life Story for
The family writes --
Ruth Arak arrived in the United States at the age of four. Earlier, she had lived in Vienna with her father, Johannes, a lawyer, and her mother, Frieda, who owned the furniture store Mobelhaus Feldhorn in partnership with her brother, Julius.
Their upper-middle-class existence was disrupted when the Nazis marched into Vienna. The next-door neighbors knocked on their door and carried out their piano. Ruth threatened to throw them down the stairs, causing her mother great consternation. Johannes was briefly imprisoned—because he was a Boy Scout leader, not because he was a Jew—and Frieda managed to get permission for the family to emigrate. Their entry into the U.S. was sponsored by a relative, Ben Arac. Ruth’s first taste of America was Coca-Cola, which went up her nose. The incident became a treasured family story.
The Araks arrived in New York City with no money, and Johannes was forced to work in a tannery for the family to survive. Later, they moved to Wilmington, Delaware, hoping for better prospects. Johannes eventually became treasurer of a department store, Braunstein’s. Other members of Frieda’s family made their way to America. Johannes’ family died in the concentration camps.
Ruth learned English in kindergarten, as did Frieda, who volunteered as a teacher’s aide. Ruth was uncommonly intelligent, and sometime in grammar school was awarded a bluish-green sculpture as an academic prize. Though it was one of the ugliest pieces of bric-a-brac ever made, she treasured it well into adulthood. A teacher once pointed to her complexion to define the word “swarthy,” and a classmate said, “It must mean ‘smart.’ “
She spent most of her life believing that she and Frieda shared the same birthday and was quite chagrined when her mother admitted a year or two before she died that she was actually born a few days earlier and fudged her birthdate to match Ruth’s.
Ruth skipped a grade or two in school (somewhere in here her younger brother, Syd, was born) and started college early at the University of Delaware. When she was a teenager, she met the love of her life, Jay Toor, who lived a block away from her family on Washington Street. Frieda told Ruth she could not get married until she graduated from college. Ruth doubled down and did so at age 19. They were married soon after, and were together for 66 years.
After graduating, Ruth worked as a legal secretary for Hyman Young, who at one point served as Delaware’s Attorney General. One of her duties was witnessing wills—although she was legally too young to do so. Fortunately, none of the wills was ever challenged. Jay, an Air Force veteran with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania night school, worked a series of jobs until he landed as the financial guy at Huber Baking Company.
Ruth and Jay had two children, Mark in 1956 and Cary in 1958. They lived in a three-bedroom house on Marsh Road, and the children started out in Wilmington schools. Then, when Cary was ready for first grade and Mark was ready for third, the Toors moved to New Jersey. Huber had been bought by Supermarkets Operating Company, which was based there. SOC told Jay they saw a much better future for him at the headquarters.
The family moved to a four-bedroom house in Berkeley Heights, one of the many bedroom communities south and west of New York City. With both kids in school all day, Ruth looked for ways to fill her time. She qualified as a substitute teacher and was called constantly for her kids’ school. She took cooking classes from culinary expert Rebecca Caruba, learning to use wines in recipes, which in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was unusual (the alcohol content burns off when heated, she was told). The family became Friday-night regulars at the Jewish Community Center of Summit.
But Ruth wanted something a little more formal, and when Mark was in seventh grade she began a three-year master’s-degree program in library sciences at Rutgers University. She had always been an enthusiastic reader, and she chose school librarianship rather than law school because her vacations would track with her children’s.
She was hired at Southern Boulevard Elementary School in Chatham Township. She found that her predecessor, who had retired with great popularity, had left things a mess. She fixed everything and worked hard presenting the library as a resource to enrich teachers’ lessons. She retired after 29 years, at least as popular as her predecessor had been.
Much of her salary went to pay her sons’ tuitions at George Washington University, meaning that they did not need to take out loans and that Jay did not need to liquidate the stock he was awarded every year. This became important in 2007, when SOC, then renamed Supermarkets General Corporation and the parent company of Pathmark, was acquired by A & P. Jay had hundreds of thousands of shares which were bought at takeover prices, laying the groundwork for a comfortable semi-retirement.
With another school librarian, Hilda Weisburg, Ruth wrote more than a dozen how-to books for school librarians, including “New on the Job: A School Librarian's Guide to Success” and “Elementary School Librarian's Almanac: A Complete Media Program for Every Month of the School Year.” The pair then created “School Librarian’s Workshop,” a newsletter that at its height had tens of thousands of subscribers. The workshop and many of the books were published by a company founded by Jay after he retired from corporate work.
Jay and Ruth attended library conventions around the country to sell the workshop and the books, and Ruth became active in the American Library Association. Ruth served as president of the American Association of School Librarians in 1992-93 and worked on many ALA and AASL committees. In 1995, she served on the committee that chose the recipient of the Caldecott children’s-book medal.
With both Jay and Ruth semi-retired and having greater control of their work schedules, they stepped up their travel around the world, particularly in Europe. They bought sketches by street artists to commemorate each destination, and those drawings and paintings covered the walls of their retirement condo in Basking Ridge.
The condo also featured a piano, which they purchased for their own enjoyment when the kids were almost grown; paintings done by Ruth’s father a half-century earlier; and a jungle of plants in every room. Ruth and Jay loved hosting holiday dinners for their children and their wives (Joyce and Joye), their four grandchildren (Catherine, Skye, Joshua and Erik), and Ruth’s brother Syd and his son John.
Ruth began to develop Alzheimer’s disease around 2010, slowly narrowing the focus of her life. She was unable to continue her library and publishing work. She and Jay moved to the retirement community of Winchester Gardens, hoping to share a two-bedroom apartment. But by the time they actually moved in, she needed to be housed with other Alzheimer’s patients in the Memory Unit.
In Ruth’s final years, as she slowly lost memory and function, she was cared for by a series of dedicated caregivers. Jay saw her every day, making the short walk to the Memory Unit to visit her and having her brought to the apartment. He would hold her hand and talk to her, telling her how much he loved her and how beautiful she was. She always seemed to know when he was there.
He was visiting her room at the Memory Unit when she died Sept. 7, 2018, slipping away peacefully as she slept.