Remembering Elizabeth Valoma, social worker, artist, co-founder of the Cheese Board Collective

Valoma was a world traveler, visual artist and cultural well-spring. She died at 91.

Elizabeth Valoma in 1952. Courtesy of Deborah Valoma

Elizabeth Magarian Valoma (née Margaret Elizabeth Magarian) passed away in her Berkeley home surrounded by the love of her family on April 24. She was 91.

My mother, Elizabeth, was legendary, though she would have hated me making such a statement, especially in the opening of her obituary. Anywhere we traveled together — New York, Paris, Jerusalem — we ran into people who knew her from the Cheese Board in Berkeley. She delighted in these personal encounters, but avoided publicity and declined interviews. As a private person with a profound sense of egalitarianism, she embodied the principles of community.

Elizabeth passed at 4:24 p.m. on 4/24, a numerical synchronicity that she would have loved. She did not believe in coincidence, but rather in symbolic alignments within the interconnected universe. Her death day was the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which her grandmothers had survived before migrating to the farmland of the San Joaquin Valley. It was also the day that the U.S. government officially recognized the Armenian genocide. As she left this world, the Armenian diaspora exploded in celebration of this long-awaited acknowledgement.

Elizabeth grew up in Fresno with her mother, Sara Sohigian Magarian, a homemaker, artist and lace maker; father, Masick Magarian, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur; and three younger siblings, Marion, Arlene and Richard. Because they were Armenian, Elizabeth was thrown off her bike, eyeglasses broken and taunted by grade-school classmates who called her “dirty Armenian.” But the Fresno Armenian community was a vibrant refuge where genocide survivors found solace and support. My mother remembered with fondness the bountiful Sunday picnics along the river and the joyful dances led by men waving handkerchiefs and stomping on the new-world dirt.

In her youth, Elizabeth was a nature-bound tomboy. She was an avid hiker and swimmer, counselor and lifeguard at summer camps in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After completing a bachelor’s in social work from UC Berkeley in 1952, Elizabeth embraced Berkeley as her home for seven decades. She loved walking the streets and pathways of the college town, where she found a forward-thinking, unconventional community that nurtured her free spirit. As a devoted mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and wife, she became a beloved matriarch and mentor to multiple generations in Berkeley. Throughout her 91 years, Elizabeth lived diverse lives and filled multiple roles — as a social worker and world traveler, a visual artist and cultural well-spring.

Elizabeth met her first husband, Richard Mitchell, the Scots-Irish son of a Paso Robles Baptist preacher, at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. After graduating from California College of the Arts and Craft, he attended Brandeis University as a doctoral candidate in Semitic languages. And in 1958 the couple traveled on the freighter SS Hope to Israel on a grant awarded by the Israeli government to study at the Hebrew University. In Jerusalem, Elizabeth found a sense of belonging and spiritual groundedness that she had never before encountered.

In 1961, following their return to Berkeley, they established the Institute for Mediterranean Studies with an office on University Avenue. The research institute raised funds, offered educational programs, and oversaw excavations at Tel Nagila in the Negev Desert. Under the auspices of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, archeologists uncovered multi-period settlements, with Middle Bronze Age finds that remain on display at the Israel Museum. During the excavation years, they split their time between Berkeley and Jerusalem and were fearless adventurers, even with a young daughter in tow — traveling to ancient sites throughout the Middle East, including Casablanca, Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus, Jericho and Petra.

Elizabeth Valoma at a dig in Tel Nagila, Israel, in 1962. Courtesy of Deborah Valoma

Elizabeth met her second husband, Sahag Avedisian, an Armenian-American volunteer working on Kibbutz Barkai, at the excavation at Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. After her return to Berkeley in 1964, Elizabeth remarried and together they founded the Cheese Board in 1967. Vine Street neighbor Alfred Peet, who had recently opened the first Peet’s, predicted the cheese shop’s failure. But after learning of their first day’s gross of $95, he blessed their success. Based on the socialist tenets of Israel’s kibbutz system, the couple collectivized the organization in 1971 and sold the business to the newly formed cooperative.

Elizabeth Valoma at the Cheese Board in 2003. Credit: Josh Apte. Courtesy of the Cheese Board

The Cheese Board Collective expanded into its present location on Shattuck Avenue in 1975 and has since become a multi-million-dollar enterprise. Elizabeth was proud that the organization retained its non-hierarchical structure and went on to seed multiple collectives, including five Arizmendis, founded on the principles of social and economic justice. Elizabeth leaves behind networks of worker-owned and operated businesses that support hundreds of families and a legacy of egalitarian action.

Elizabeth was deeply empathetic and had an intimate way of nodding from afar with heartfelt understanding or offering sincere support through a gentle touch. Ever the social worker, she was called on for her wisdom and compassion when group dynamics derailed or personal tragedies struck. Beloved by the public, she worked behind the counter until she was 84 and remains even after her death the guiding light and ideological heart of the Cheese Board.

With her keen attunement to beauty, Elizabeth fulfilled a life-long dream to become an artist, first as a ceramist and then as a painter. Beginning in 1978, she studied with Julius Hatofsky and Bruce McGaw and at the San Francisco Institute of Art, participated in East Bay Open Studios, and had several curated shows in Berkeley. Over decades of prolific practice, she filled her studio with hand-written poems, figurative charcoal drawings and abstract, boldly stroked, chromatically exuberant oil paintings.

Elizabeth Valoma with her grandmother Elizabeth Ashodian Magarian in 1931 in Fresno. Courtesy of Deborah Valoma

In the years prior to her passing, Elizabeth was determined to pass forward her Armenian heritage. She taught us words and phrases learned from her grandmother, with whom she spoke only Armenian, and showed us how to prepare traditional recipes, including yalange (stuffed grape leaves) and burma (rolled form of baklava). Because Elizabeth was the last of her immediate family to have known the genocide survivors, we recorded her stories and reclaimed the cultural lineage she carried across generations of silence and displacement.

Elizabeth looked back on nearly a century of memories that read like a history of the Bay Area: driving to the end of Berkeley pier and onto the ferry to San Francisco before the Bay Bridge was built; attending the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on the newly constructed Treasure Island; watching with outrage as Japanese Americans were bused to internment camps; locking eyes with John Kennedy in 1962 at the UCB Memorial Stadium; hiring Peter Albin as a camp counselor at the Marin Jewish Community Center and organizing a performance of Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company; opening her home to free speech activist Mario Savio; and afternoon teas with writer and anthropologist Theodora Kroeber. Elizabeth championed the progressive politics and delighted in the quirky, non-conformist culture of those exhilarating days. But in her final months, it was memories of her years living in Jerusalem — her spiritual home — that she revisited most often.

After an early morning fall on April 15, Elizabeth declined quickly with reduced lung capacity and heart function. Lying at home under a hand-stitched quilt and crocheted coverlet made by her namesake grandmothers, my mother transitioned peacefully from elder to ancestor. 

Elizabeth was an adventurous spirit, generous soul, elegant beauty, intuitive dreamer and warrior for justice. She is survived by her beloved sister, Arlene Magarian; brother, Richard Magarian; sister-in-law, Sharon Green; nephew, Aiden Magarian; granddaughter Petra Valoma; and daughter, Deborah Valoma.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Elizabeth Valoma’s name can be made to her favorite charities: Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization, and Warm Hearth, a project in Armenia that provides homes for special-needs adults.

Elizabeth Valoma in Berkeley in 1975. Courtesy of Deborah Valoma