Member Profile: Naomi Yanis

It’s time to profile a very valuable FCLIR member, Naomi Yanis. Few have made such a positive impact on this organization over the years. Naomi is a good example of how much one person, who enjoys learning and interacting intellectually and socially with others, can benefit from LIR by participating fully.

In addition to taking and moderating seminars and workshops, Naomi has had a significant role in initiating policy by chairing committees and serving on the Council, eventually leading to a term as President.

Naomi’s parents were Communists when she was born in 1937. Back then the Communists were the only political entity concerned with issues of race in America. As a child, Naomi had a comforting sense of being nurtured by a community. Her father even owned a Communist nudist colony. But when Joseph Stalin joined Adolph Hitler in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that was the end of their family’s ties to the Communist Party.

When Naomi was two and a half, her mother left her father and took her to live with her grandparents in a typical middle class household in the Bronx. She was raised by them, because her mother worked, remarried, and, during the war, often followed her husband to wherever he was stationed in the States.

In 1953 at age 16, Naomi’s father, who had stayed in Europe after the war, decided to give her a trip to Europe as a high school graduation present. After a month of school in Cannes, she spent the rest of the summer managing very well on her own.

Upon her return, she entered City College (CCNY), which was tuition free, and majored in mathematics. She got married in her junior year and had her first child at age 20, eventually raising three kids in a suburban New Jersey setting. This suburban life was somewhat stultifying, but she stayed active in progressive causes.

With her husband working as an engineer, Naomi began her career teaching math at various levels, ending up as a remedial math teacher at an inner city community college. She concluded her working career in 1995 by programming and designing computer systems for large mainframe computers. She also owned a boutique consignment shop, but she considered her real work to be all her unpaid organizational work, including as an elected member of her local school board.

In 1996, Naomi left New Jersey and settled very happily here in the Valley. She quickly became an LIR member and was elected to Council in 1998. After co-chairing the Curriculum Committee, she served as President in 2003-2004.

Back in 1996, when the cost to join LIR was $150, Naomi was concerned about whether she could afford the yearly fee, so she applied to attend without having to pay the full amount. As a result of this experience Naomi later initiated a system whereby members need not fill out a demeaning application for membership assistance, but just indicate their need. Fortunately that’s no longer her personal concern, but the concern for others lingers.

Another innovation that Naomi designed and initiated was our Encore Presentation Program back in 1998, as a tenth anniversary celebration event. She remembers that the first one was well attended, taking place in a lecture hall at Hampshire College. But it took quite a few years for this great program to be reestablished as a regular part of FCLIR.

In her very first semester, Naomi took five seminars. Then for many years, she settled in on taking four per semester. She’s been down to three seminars each semester for some time now.

Over the years Naomi has done a lot of traveling, including to Israel where she has family and to Cuba, her favorite vacation spot. She took her entire family there in 2017 to celebrate her 80th birthday. Her spacious, high-ceilinged downtown Northampton apartment is filled with art from around the world, especially from Africa and Asia. These trips have led her to moderate courses on some of these foreign locales, including one on Southeast Asia.

The issue of slavery is another area of interest for Naomi. Last Fall and this coming Spring, she is co-moderating, with Sara Lennox, a two-semester course on historian Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project. This controversial book presents a new narrative of U.S. history, centering the Black experience and showing how the effects of slavery continue to inform the present day.

Naomi’s first venture into moderating seminars was co-moderating a seminar with Chuck Gillies focused on globalization. Another of her seminars was based on a book called Making Race and Nation by Anthony W. Marx, which compares Brazil, South Africa, and the U.S. with respect to how slavery and colonialism were put into practice and enforced, linking the construction of nations to the construction of racial identity. A third seminar used the book Lies Our Teachers Taught Us as a springboard to examine our own attitudes concerning race and misrepresentations of American history.

One of the most interesting seminars Naomi ever took was a scientific exploration about the nature of life on earth based on the book The Theory of Everything – The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, about superstring theory and the quest for the ultimate theory of physics. Naomi relates that a third of the class participants were professional scientists, a third PhD physicists, and a third non science folks like her. Participants were responsible for presenting a chapter in groups of three.

In response to my question about how has LIR has changed since she first joined, Naomi answered by saying that she was concerned in the early years by some key founding members passing on and the leadership looking a little shaky. However, lately she’s been pleasantly surprised that the membership has grown stronger, with people taking a more active role in effectively guiding us through some tough times like the pandemic. And she feels that the quality of presentations has improved as well. Members are doing their research and meeting the challenge. With committed leaders and live wires like Naomi Yanis setting the tone, our lifelong learning organization will be on firm footing for many years to come.

Dick “Stony” Stonberg