A reader identified only as “Curious,” from Mount Vernon, sent a letter to this newspaper in June 1993, asking “Is there such a thing as ‘Jewish dress?’”
“Curious” inquired about clothing worn by chasidic Jews, women’s wigs and variations in kippot worn by men.
Jewish Week columnist Helen Latner answered the question in one of her last advice columns, “Ask Helen Latner.” She explained the history of various styles of typical Jewish garb, offered some cultural background, and wrote that, “Generally, Jews have adopted the dress styles of the cultures in which they live.”
Over a dozen years, Mrs. Latner, who died on Jan. 25 at 97 in her home in Newton, Mass., dealt with such topics as a husband’s treatment of his second wife and the Jewish community’s acceptance of converts, reinforcing her reputation, which she established by writing three books about Jewish behavior and beliefs, as the go-to person for advice in the dozens of Jewish newspapers where her column was published.
“People loved her advice,” said Sarah Stambler, Mrs. Latner’s daughter. “She always gave you great advice.” Some people would find Mrs. Latner’s home phone number and call her to discuss topics too personal for inclusion in a newspaper, Stambler said.
Born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland, Mrs. Latner graduated from Hunter College and Columbia University, serving as an English teacher and principal in the New York City public schools, but, like many women of her generation, had minimal formal Jewish education.
Her first book grew out of a request from a rabbi friend for a wedding invitation that included a Hebrew text. She could find neither a proper invitation, nor a book that described how to design one. “It dawned on me that there were large areas of deportment familiar to my generation, in our tightly knit Jewish environment, that would not be handed down as interaction between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds increased,” she said in a 1981 New York Times interview
That experience, and realizing her lack of knowledge about Jewish customs when making funeral arrangements for her first husband, Benedict Stambler, in 1967, motivated her to embark upon a campaign of self-education, attending adult education classes and consulting with local rabbis, Mrs. Latner’s daughter said.
The result was her books —“The Book of Modern Jewish Etiquette: A Guide for All Occasions,” “Your Jewish Wedding,” and “The Everything Jewish Wedding Book” — and her column.
Her preparation for doing an advice column? The “many thousands of students” she had helped as a teacher,” Stambler said. “And she was a mother.”
“She wanted to be a writer. She liked to tell stories,” Stambler said. “She also wanted to be a teacher.”
Mrs. Latner, a self-described “Conservative Jew with liberal leanings,” called her etiquette books “a roadmap” for Jews of all backgrounds. “Even those who don’t observe anything will attend weddings and funerals.”
An amateur actress, she worked as a teacher until she was 58, then turned her attention to full-time writing, moving to Florida, then to Massachusetts.
Her second husband, David Latner, died in 2000.
Mrs. Latner is survived by four children, Sarah, Zipporah, Morris, and Abigail; a stepson, David Latner; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.