Tech industry aficionados traveling to Palo Alto, Calif., to visit sites like the HP Garage and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ house likely drive right past the Lucie Stern Community Center. They probably don’t even notice it, let alone wonder about the Jewish woman whose name it bears.
If you look carefully, many of Palo Alto’s institutions carry the philanthropic imprint of Stern, who lived and died (in 1946) here well before silicon ever came to this valley nestled between San Francisco Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. But few are familiar with the biography of the beneficent woman once known as “Stanford’s Aunt Lucie” and “Palo Alto’s Fairy Godmother.”
I took an interest in her shortly after my move to Palo Alto from New York around seven years ago. Of course, the Jewish surname “Stern” automatically piqued my curiosity. But beyond that, our next-door neighbor told us that she had inherited her house from her grandfather, who had been Lucie Stern’s personal French chef. Stern, who our neighbor mentioned had been part of the Levi Strauss family, had built the house for the chef and his family. I was eager to learn more about this generous woman—whom I eventually discovered enjoyed great wealth and privilege, but also suffered great pain and loss in her lifetime.
Libi bamizrach va’ani b’sof ma’arav. “My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest West.” Those were the sentiments of Yehuda Halevi, the Jewish-Spanish physician and poet who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries.
They are also mine.
However, while for Halevi, “East” represented the Land of Israel, for me it symbolizes both that and my other cultural home — New York City. When you live on the western edge of the North American continent, as I do, both seem very far away.