By R.M. Grossblatt
“This is not an art class,” says Elena Oliker, who emphasizes the technology of drawing in her home each Sunday morning to young girls from Torah Day School of Atlanta. Oliker calls the spacewhere the girls meet Frima’s Circle, in memory of her mother.
Frima Gorinstein was born in Ukraine and remembered the pogroms. She became a construction engineer, and after her husband died, she worked at her profession and had little time for outside interests.
“She raised me by herself,” Oliker said, “with full-time employment, putting me through college.”
When Gorinstein retired at 65, she started developing her interest in drawing and painting. She was also fond of children.
“Lots of kids in the community enjoyed another grandmother,” Oliker said.
In October 2007, Gorinstein died in her 90s. Naomi May, then the vice principal of Torah Day School, made a shiva call, and Oliker shared her wish to do something special in memory of her mother, maybe teaching drawing to children. That seemed an appropriate way to combine her mother’s love of children and the gift she developed.
The vice principal and friend asked only one question: “When can you start?”
Oliker said she could begin after shloshim (the first 30 days after someone dies).
So Oliker began teaching the technology of drawing to six young girls during their art period at TDSA.
“Their teacher (Charlie Lewis) was amazing, but I felt it was an imposition on the school,” Oliker said. So she moved Frima’s Circle to her basement art studio.
Eight years later, every Sunday morning that she is in town, Oliker teaches three hour-long classes, one after the other, so she can honor her “mother’s memory with consistency.”
She never charges a fee, and she furnishes all the supplies. Her goal is to give her students the tools to become creative.
People are born with different abilities, but Oliker believes that “everyone has a little bit of the gift.”
She also believes that the first time a child draws and gets critical feedback, the child becomes self-critical. So she tells her students they can’t mess up.
They draw in green and correct in purple. “That writes something in her brain,” Oliker said, “because the child sees it works, and then it’s exciting.”
Oliker said the best teacher she had in math drilled the axioms of geometry into her head. That’s also her teaching philosophy. “I drill the technical ideas into children’s heads.”
For example, she teaches that a head is an egg, and the eyes are in the middle. Like her math teacher, she requires her students to verbalize everything they learn.
Chabad Intown’s preschool often invites Oliker to share something with the children. “They run with it,” she said.
Examples of her students’ work can be found on her website, www.LenaMatis.net/TDSA; at traveling exhibits; and at the Torah Day School library.
She has started another Frima’s Circle in Israel, which she and her husband, a math professor at Emory, visit several times a year.
In Netanya, Oliker started by teaching her friend’s grandchildren because of their high tolerance — “for my Hebrew,” she said.
She guides boys from preschool to bar mitzvah age and teenage girls. Wherever Oliker honors her mother’s memory, she says: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be excellent. It’s the excellence you’re striving for.”
She said her mother worked toward such excellence and “built it.”