Mary Jo Pollack lives life out loud, not only as a storyteller for Odyssey Storytelling, FST!, and Tellers of Tales Tucson, but as a general life philosophy.
Pollack, 71, is an artist on the board of directors of Beading Divas to the Rescue, a group of Tucson women who create and sell colorful, one-of-kind beaded bracelets, donating the proceeds to a different animal rescue each month. In 10 years, the nonprofit Divas have raised and donated more than $225,000.
Pollack has been making jewelry since high school, and in her 40s, earned a degree in wood furniture design from California College of Arts and Crafts. Since moving to Tucson from Los Angeles five years ago as a retiree, she hasn’t had a woodshop. Besides bracelets, she makes other jewelry — you’ll often see her sporting a pair of funky earrings — and does drawing and fiber art. Storytelling is another aspect of her creative process, and she’s also working on a memoir about the 10 years she spent driving up and down the I-5 from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to spend time with her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
Although she’s a lifelong artist, Pollack has supported herself with “a million” jobs, including insurance underwriter, real estate agent, marketing for a friend’s start-up, and administrative specialist for Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare company. “I made some good friends there,” she says.
She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. “St. Paul-Minneapolis, the Twin Cities, has a really strong Jewish community,” says Pollack, who was active in BBG, serving as president of the youth group’s St. Paul council in her senior year of high school. “I did have a lot of that influence growing up, which shaped the way I view things.”
Today, she describes herself as a secular, cultural, culinary Jew — albeit one who kindles Chanukah candles each year and lights a special lamp for the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of her mother, father, and brother.
But “if there’s something anti-Semitic in the news, I become Super Jew,” she says.
“I think I feel more in touch with Judaism in the past couple of years, with everything that’s been going on,” she says, commenting on the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and Europe. “I feel that I have to state my identity and let people know that they can’t mess around with me. If they want to, they’re going to get it back.”
Pollack loved visiting her aunt and uncle in Minnesota on Fridays, when they’d buy a fresh challah, her aunt would light the Shabbat candles, and they’d say the blessings over the bread and wine.
As for her own Jewish culinary connection, she boasts that she makes a mean shakshuka, the Israeli dish of eggs cooked in tomato sauce that’s been showing up on U.S. brunch menus.
She’s lucky enough to have several friends in town who are food writers, with whom she tries new restaurants. “Tucson’s a fun, easy town to get around — every week I see 10 things I’d like to do,” she says.
Pollack fell in love with the oral storytelling tradition after moving to Tucson and meeting Odyssey Storytelling founder Penelope Starr through a mutual friend. She has taken the stage at Odyssey, Tellers of Tales and FST! (Female Story Tellers) numerous times. Next month, on March 21, she’ll be telling a story on the theme “The Power of Family” for a new group in Mesa, Arizona, Mesa Storytellers at Mesa Library, talking about three female relatives who influenced her, including her father’s older sister, Eva Pollack Glaser, “who somehow managed in the 1920s to get a scholarship to law school, and was president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in the ’40s.”
“She was very influential in my life and that of some of my cousins,” says Pollack. “She would give really good advice.”