Avie Guttman, the interviewer for the Smile on Seniors Recorded Interview Program, knows how to pose thought-provoking questions. Take the question she posed when speaking to attendees of a recent SOS dinner.
“Do you want to be forgotten?” she asked the crowd, adding that in 50 or so years, most people will be forgotten, save for the scantest memories — that is, unless she can do something about it.
Preserving memories and stories is something Guttman is extremely passionate about. Part of this stems from her gregarious nature, deep fascination with people and desire to serve the community, though she has personal motivations as well.
“My father died when I was 17, and I knew some stuff, but not enough to spend more than 10 minutes on it,” Guttman said.
The program is free and open to people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. The interviews are usually conducted in a room at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus and generally run from an hour to an hour and a half. They are always conducted one-on-one, something that Guttman says is essential to the program’s success.
“I design all the questions and they are not given to the person beforehand,” Guttman said. “I want to have a very spontaneous reaction to the questions. No one comes in the room with a person, even if the person is disabled or has a speech problem.”
Guttman was trained to collect oral histories by the Santa Barbara Historical Society, where she mostly interviewed authors and artists, focusing particularly on their careers. She’d receive dossiers on her interview subjects and design questions specifically for them.
One interview left a strong impression on her, helping plant the seeds for the SOS recorded interview program.
“I only had one person I did in those years who was an older person and it just struck something in me, because she was alone,” Guttman said. “She had been living in this place for over 25 years. She was never married. All her family was deceased. Her story really struck me.”
After Guttman relocated to Arizona in 2008, she noticed that a significant portion of the area’s full-time and part-time residents are seniors, and she wanted to find a way to reach out to them. That opportunity came after she attended a Smile on Seniors program about three years ago. Noting the crowd and engaged attitude of attendees, Guttman thought SOS might be a good group to collaborate with.
“I thought it would be a good starting place to create this program,” Guttman said.
She approached Rabbi Levi Levertov, SOS co-director, about working together on a project, and was pleased when she found him receptive.
“One of the things that makes us unique is that in addition to the programs that we offer,” Levertov said, “there are people who come and say, ‘I have a program or opportunity.’ Avie’s is one, but some examples of others are our mahjong and bridge programs.”
While Guttman conducts the interviews, Levertov handles editing the sound files and transferring them to USB drives or making the recordings available online for family members who live far away. He only listens to the very beginning of the files to ensure they are recorded properly. The stories are never shared publicly.
Though Guttman has collected many tales already, she is eager to find more people interested in sharing and preserving their stories. To set up an interview, contact Guttman at 480-656-0717 or email@example.com. JN