‘The Orange Lady’


About a month ago, I found a treasure – a real tangerine, like the ones I remember from my youth. Not a mandarin or a clementine or a Murcott, but a real tangerine. The loose-skinned variety, with all the “strings” that you have to pull off each section of the fruit.

The tangerines I recall came from Florida in the autumn and were a harbinger of shorter days and cold and snow. To wax poetic, they were a ray of sunshine on dark winter days.

Over the years, this variety of tangerine has become more difficult to find. It’s delicate, I was told, difficult to ship and subject to disease. Other varieties took its place.

Unlike the tangerines of my youth, my newfound treasure did not come from Florida in autumn. It bore the label Jaffa, from Israel, and arrived in late spring.

In the 1960s, we had another harbinger of a coming season. In March, “The Orange Lady” would call. Her name was Sarah Ritter. She earned that title because every year for more than 20 years, she made phone calls, persuading, cajoling, soliciting orders for cases of Jaffa oranges as a fundraiser for the Hadassah Israel Education Service.

You didn’t need a whole case? Well, then, share the oranges with friends or donate them to the Jewish Home (then on Hillside Avenue, in Providence). 

It was difficult, indeed nearly impossible, to refuse Sarah Ritter. Her list of purchasers reached almost 300. Add to that the countless donors to her cause. No matter that these early oranges were usually tart and unusually thick-skinned; they came from Israel to aid a good cause in that country.

For those who remember Sarah Ritter, this reminiscence may bring a smile or even a chuckle. There was, however, another facet, a more serious facet, to one of her many volunteer efforts: Her work on behalf of the blind and visually impaired.

There is now technology, such as talking books and computers that produce Braille, to bring literature and learning to the blind and visually impaired. Before these innovations, there were only two ways for the visually impaired to get access to the printed word – learning Braille or having a reader. 

In 1954, after the death of her husband, Ritter became interested in the Rhode Island state agency offering assistance to this population. She volunteered to be a reader. She also studied Braille transcription and mastered the technique of turning the written word into dots and cells.

After passing a rigorous test, Ritter earned certification from the Library of Congress.

Transcribing the written word into Braille was a difficult and tedious process. Each transcribed word had to be closely checked for accuracy, since a missing or misplaced dot could change its meaning. 

Before she acquired a Braille machine, Ritter used a stylus and slate to punch the symbols on paper by hand. After she got the machine, she transcribed cookbooks and a book on bridge, among others.

Ritter also learned Yiddish and Hebrew Braille, and transcribed many books for the Jewish Braille Institute of New York, including a Bible and a Haggadah.

In an interview in 1981, Ritter recalled that one of the most challenging assignments she received from the Jewish Braille Institute was transcribing four volumes of “Ulpani” (“My Course of Instruction”), by Shlomo Haramati, a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew University. The print, she said, was almost illegible, and there were no vowels. After many calls to her good friend Beryl Segal for help, Ritter completed the task for the person in Israel who had requested the Braille version.

Ritter received many well-deserved accolades and commendations from the organizations for which she volunteered her time and talent. The spirit of doing for others was always in Sarah Ritter’s heart and head.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Katz studied with Prof. Haramati at Hebrew University.  The writer consulted with him about the translation of “Ulpani.”

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.

RIJHA, Foster