Helena Diamant Glass: Color Her Elegant

By Siân Gibby | Issue Date: March 2011

Helena Diamant Glass. Photo Credit: Brad Paris

I know Jews aren’t supposed to talk about idols. Let’s face it, the last time Israelites got serious about an idol, Aaron wound up in pretty hot water, and it was only the intercession of his brother that saved him (and, incidentally, us).

This isn’t that kind of an idol. Nor do I mean American Idol. What I’m talking about is good, old-fashioned, “I wanna be like her some day” admiration. And I’m referring to Helena Diamant Glass. Even her name is elegant! (It sounds like a character in a Henry James novel, doesn’t it?) And I don’t think it would be too much to say that Helena is in a category of her own when it comes to couture at BJ.

Do not get me wrong: BJ boasts quite a number of people who look wonderful when they come to shul, people who really know how to put themselves together. But Helena possesses a variety of style that hints at a classic European provenance. Small wonder, when you consider that her father was a skilled dressmaker and tailor in prewar Austria. This is a fashion sense that she came by honestly.

Helena’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, moved to this country (their baby girl was a year old when they emigrated) and settled in New Jersey. Helena remembers how much her father liked to make clothes for not only his daughter but also his wife. She recalls with particular fondness a green wool dress and matching coat “with a Persian fur collar” that her father designed and produced for her when she was just 4.

When she became a teenager, Helena, wanting to pursue a career in academia, moved to the City. “And I never left it,” she admits. She studied at NYU, getting her undergrad and graduate degrees in German literature and language. Helena eventually parlayed her love of the workings of academia, as well as her burgeoning fashion sensibility, into a faculty career position as a registrar at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where she is responsible for 15 majors and 2,000+ students. Seems like a perfect match, right? In fact, she says that being in this epicenter of fashion has affected even her own self-expression through clothes. “At FIT, I see color combinations that I would never have put together! I always try to dress nicely, but being here has given me an edge; it’s opened my mind.”

Helena has always attended shul regularly, from the time she was a little girl in New Jersey Hebrew school. “I’ve always been a shul go-er,” she says. She grew up to become very active in the life of the shuls she was a member of, including serving as president of a synagogue in the Village for a number of years in the early ‘90s. But in 1997 she found her spiritual home here at B’nai Jeshurun. She brought some visitors to the Friday night service she had heard about and remembers that the church (where Kabbalat Shabbat services were held at the time) was so crowded that she was stuck at the back and couldn’t see whoever was at the bimah. But she could hear what he was saying, and she was awestruck. Also the music amazed her.

The rabbi turned out to be Roly Matalon, and she has gratefully benefited from his fond guidance and leadership ever since. She and her husband were soon regular attendees, and when her husband became ill, Roly’s counsel, as well as the support of the community, helped her during that difficult time.

When I asked what it was that captivated her so about our synagogue, she says, “BJ just changed my entire life. Although I’d had a strong Jewish background, this was different.” Even with her busy work and travel schedules, she manages to take every opportunity for study at BJ she can squeeze in. She particularly values the spirituality our community thrives on and encourages, as well as the intellectual challenges it offers. “Also,” she adds, “the diversity. There are so many different kinds of people at BJ.” Like all true New Yorkers, in other words, Helena understands that beauty can be found most readily in the vibrant combination of intensity and variety.

No surprise that her favorite place on earth is Italy: the undisputed center of art and style center of the universe. She has traveled there 17 times so far, focusing on the city called La Serenissima, Venice. However, she adds, “My new great love in Italy is Sicily, which I visited twice last year.”

Helena stands out at BJ: for her footwear and hosiery, her jewelry, her haberdashery with its understated timelessness, and for her general savoir faire. (I am a hopeless fashion cause myself, but I nevertheless am delighted that she and I share a love of metallic shoes.) In Helena’s case, it’s evident that her outward elegance speaks eloquently to the fact of her general graciousness. If not an idol, then let’s call her … an aspiration.