Janet Zeiss Roberts died at home in Berkeleywith her family on Sept. 1. Janet was a lodestar, a shining example to family and countless friends — as mother, grandmother, artist, activist, traveler, cook extraordinaire, giver of gifts — and so much more. Her warm heart, her wry, humor and her political passion inspired many friends over the years.
Janet lived in Berkeley for 60 years, the last 58 of them in the Victorian house on Essex Street. She was in so many ways “as Berkeley as you can be”: creative and opinionated, clever and compassionate, wise and witty.
Janet was part of the ’60s generation of active and outspoken Berkeley people who inspired and lived the counterculture. She was a Berkeley Co-op, Telegraph Avenue, and Berkeley Bowl regular, as well as an early morning Downtown YMCA swimmer and a Berkeley Public Library absolutist.
Janet was born in New York City on Oct. 31, 1929 — a Brooklynite, second of two daughters born to Rebecca (Halpern) and Joseph Zeiss. Janet’s parents emigrated from Russia and Austria as children in the 1890s. Rebecca and Joseph were both deaf, which made signing Janet’s first language. Since her parents were poor and disabled immigrants, Janet’s early years were difficult. Those years made her acutely aware of inequality, in our country and abroad, inspiring her lifelong commitment to helping marginalized people.
In 1943, in search of work, Janet’s family relocated from New York to Hartford, Connecticut, where her parents found jobs making parts for World War II fighter planes. With her parents at work, Janet, who knew no one, found the local branch of the public library, in Mark Twain’s elegant former home. Janet spent many hours walking back and forth between their small apartment and the magical library, arms full: Her lifelong love of books and libraries had begun.
During her teens Janet was strongly influenced by her brother-in-law Norman Ketover, who had lived and studied in Paris on the G.I. Bill. Norman made a lifelong impression on Janet, sharing stories about France after WWII. He introduces her to “the arts” — literature, museums and classical music.
In 1947, after graduating from high school, Janet met Harry Roberts at the Hartford Museum of Art School where they were students. Harry, five years Janet’s senior, had recently returned from Europe in the Army and Janet was drawn to his worldliness and passion for art and music.
When Harry moved to New York City, Janet followed. They lived together in Greenwich Village while Harry studied at the Art Students League under the G.I. Bill.
Janet and Harry married in 1956. Their daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1958, their son Carl in 1959. The family found an apartment on the 10th floor of new low-income housing on West 100th Street, from which Janet watched the construction of the Guggenheim Museum across Central Park.
Janet’s sister Sylvia moved to San Francisco in 1955 and a year later, Janet and Harry took the train from New York to visit and fell in love with San Francisco. So, in 1960, with two babies in diapers and a new Volkswagen bus, the Roberts family set out to drive across country, camping along the way. Janet remembered, “We had no experience camping and found out quickly how much we didn’t know.” She often joked, “The coldest I’ve ever been was that first night sleeping in the desert.” They finally made it to S.F. — broke.
When Harry was hired by UC Berkeley as a book binder and restorer for the History Department, they moved across the Bay to Albany, eventually settling in Berkeley in 1963.
In the Berkeley, they found a vibrant community of ex-New Yorkers and others who had come to the Bay inspired by the ideas and ideals that were taking shape. They located Walden School, a co-operative preschool where parents were involved in their children’s education by working one day a week at the school. And here Janet found like-minded people, dedicated to political activism who would be her friends for decades to come.
Janet’s activism continued throughout her life. She was deeply involved with protesting against the Vietnam war and demonstrating in favor of school busing to integrate Berkeley schools. Women for Peace and SNCC were on the agenda as well.
In 1963, Janet and Harry traveled to Washington, D.C. to join Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March for Jobs and Freedom. During the Delano farm workers’ grape strike, Janet collected food and clothes for farmworkers. If there was a peace, anti-war, or civil rights march, you would find Janet there. She also marched to end the embargo of Cuba, and in costume with the Mourning Mothers protesting the Iraq war.
In 1965, with very little money, Janet and Harry managed to buy an old Victorian house in South Berkeley. In later years, Janet’s house would welcome European friends (and friends of friends) who made the pilgrimage to see her in her beloved Berkeley. The house was always full of beautiful objects, selected art and Janet whimsy — things she collected from travel abroad and joyful visits to second-hand stores, garage sales and flea markets.
Norman was born in 1968, adding to the family. Becca, Carl and Norman all attended Walden, a progressive elementary school started by conscientious objectors and anarchists.
In the early ’70s, Janet ran the summer camp at Timberhill, a boarding school on the Sonoma coast, patterned after A.S. Neill’s Summerhill in the United Kingdom. For Janet, a lifelong atheist, anarchist and pacifist, both schools and the communities that created them embodied her core ideals.
After her divorce in the ’70s, Janet became co-owner of Judges and Spares, a legendary restaurant in Point Richmond. Its eclectic menu, inexpensive prices and cafeteria format reflected Janet’s deeply held belief that everyone deserves great food. If you were lucky enough to taste her paella, bouillabaisse, posole or Sacher torte, you never forgot the experience.
Over the years, Janet’s work included catering, running school kitchens, and promoting educational toys for Creative Playthings. For many years, she also worked with her dear friends Alice and Don Schenker at the RePrint Mint on Telegraph Avenue, where she became an expert framer and opinionated salesperson.
In the early ’80s, after planning for years and selling her piano to raise money to travel, Janet made her first trip to Europe, with many more visits to follow. In her decades of travel abroad, Janet created a network of friends who shared homes, meals, political rants and community.
Janet never gave up — she continued working, traveling, volunteering, and donating time and money throughout her long and fruitful life. We miss the pleasures of her wisdom, her politics, her food, and her generous heart. She took great pleasure in other people’s joy.
Janet is survived by her sons Carl and Norman and grandchildren Isabel, Cooper, Abby and Aera. Her daughter Rebecca died in 2010.,
Janet’s influence reaches beyond family, beyond Berkeley, to people and ideas that she espoused vigorously for decades. Wherever she went, she created networks and communities, inspiring all with her zeal.
We all learned from Janet. She defines the Yiddish word “mensch”— uncompromising and committed. Janet lived her daily life guided by a deep sense of sharing and humanity.
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