South Florida Book Club finds Community Amidst COVID Chaos

 

By Dori Lynn Neuwirth (NC ’90)
and Sandra Breiterman (NC ’77)

Interviewed by Katie Small

South Florida fall of 2019 book club meeting. From left to right standing: Marcia Sage, Jacquelyn Caldwell, Jenny Adelman, Nadia Folic, Shelly Moxon Lehman, Marysa Rose Martin (Tulane admitted student at the time), Wendy Friedman, Lousie Bordeaux Silverstein (host). Back row: Sandra Breiterman, Maribel Piza (Loyola alum). Kneeling: Dori Lynn Neuwirth, Benedicte Boutrouille.

When the pandemic nearly canceled their spring Newcomb Alumnae Association (NAA) book club, a group of South Florida women decided to tackle their technology fears and meet virtually instead.

The group was scheduled to meet at host Sandra Breiterman’s Miami home on March 14th — right when the chaos of COVID was spreading across the nation. After a bit of troubleshooting, their lively virtual discussion of Florida, by Lauren Groff, provided a much-needed distraction from the uncertainty of the moment. The diverse, multi-generational group continued to meet monthly throughout quarantine to discuss an impressive selection of books by renowned women writers.

Newcomb Institute Communications Specialist Katie Small spoke with book club leaders Dori Lynn Neuwirth (NC ’90) and Sandra Breiterman (NC ’77) over Zoom, to discuss how their virtual club took off.

Listen to the interview:

Read a transcript of the interview below.

Newcomb Institute: Can you tell us about your Newcomb College experience and where life took you after college?

Sandra: I graduated in 1977 as a bio major. I wasn’t necessarily pre-Med because in those days there wasn’t a clear pathway for women to become doctors; most of my colleagues became doctors and eventually I did as well, but in those days, it was not the path for women necessarily. So, I did research first and then I worked at the medical school here in Miami.

Then I did an MBA in healthcare administration, I was always interested in wellness and prevention. I worked in new product development for big pharma, but then I decided to go back to medical school for naturopathic medicine. I studied in Australia where I lived for 8 years practicing natural medicine, but then I wanted to come back. I became an acupuncture physician. I’ve been living and working in Miami as a naturopath and acupuncture physician for the past 20+ years.

I do attribute Newcomb with opening my eyes to the possibility of education, the education it provided me, and the opportunities to go forth in my life.

Dori Lynn: I’ll be honest, I went to Newcomb not knowing that I was going to Newcomb versus Tulane. I really wasn’t aware that Newcomb had been an all-women’s school historically, by the time I got there it was very much integrated with the college of arts and sciences, so I’m in some ways sad that I missed out on what was perhaps the true Newcomb experience that I think Sandra had more of.

But as an alumna, I love that we do have programming that’s somewhat women-focused, so I’ve really enjoyed being a Newcomb alumna post-Tulane. I will say that graduations were separate when I was there, so that was a nice experience, I really enjoyed the daisy chain.

I’ve been very active as a Tulane volunteer, I served on the Tulane Alumni Association Board of Directors two terms, and I’ve served as a Tulane Club Leader on and off for several decades. I’ve certainly stayed very connected to Tulane for quite some time.

Newcomb Institute: How did you two meet?

Sandra: It was all Dori, Dori’s amazing at getting people together. I think it was a networking event that Dori hosted that I met her at – is that right, Dori?

Dori Lynn: Well, one of the things the South Florida Club has been doing, for probably a decade, are ongoing networking lunches and dinners throughout the tri-county South Florida area, and I believe it was one of the Miami lunches that we met at. And after you attend one, I make sure that you keep attending more. Once I know there’s a little interest, we’re gonna make sure you keep coming back.

Newcomb Institute: Tell me how the South Florida Book Club morphed into what it is now, with regular meetings in addition to the NAA book club selection. What is the group dynamic like and how did that come about?

Sandra: I was scheduled to host the Newcomb spring book club, on March 14th, the day that we went [on lockdown]. So we were trying to decide what to do, and I said, “Let’s just do it virtually.” Dori goes, “No, no it’ll get fixed, we’ll do it in a couple weeks,” and I go, “No, we’re doing this virtually. We’re gonna pull it off somehow.”

Tulane had that big audacious campaign, so I said, “We’re audacious, we can pull this off.” And so we did. I called my daughter who works in tech, and she taught me how to use Google Hangout and Zoom, and we did it and pulled it off, and it was wonderful because that was that first day of the pandemic and of lockdown, we were all so frightened, nobody knew what was going on… and we so enjoyed just talking and discussing the book.

We were able to support each other in logging on to technology which was very scary for us then — we’re Baby Boomers. This is not our lifeblood. But we did it, and we were able to have an amazing, cultural discussion about something other than COVID. We connected to each other and we so appreciated the background that we all shared, and the intellect, the ability to share wholeheartedly in a very deep and meaningful way.

It was such a rich [discussion] in the middle of this very scary day, that we decided, “Let’s do this again.” And we did, each month we were able to connect. Particularly when we were isolated at home and not seeing anyone. And we’ve been meeting since. It’s been a wonderful way to connect with other women whom share the keen intellectual, social, cultural depth that we craved. It was very enriching.

Newcomb Institute: What are some of the books you’ve read?

Dori Lynn: In addition to Florida, the NAA book selection, we read The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and Dawn by Octavia Butler, who was a past Newcomb Institute Zale-Kimmerling Writer-in-Residence.

Sandra: It ended up being a lot of anthropology-focused women writers. Not intentionally, but they all had some sort of Newcomb connection. They were all multi-cultural, about different lifestyles.

Newcomb Institute: Has the book club continued at the same pace as it did during the stay-at-home order?

Dori Lynn: We’ve continued to meet monthly since we got started. Actually, even before COVID and before we started doing this virtually, we had a solid group of women who were enjoying book club and we did meet a couple times in the summer months, in addition to the fall and spring Newcomb designated book clubs. So, I guess we’ve always had a more active book club than some others. People wanted to do it, so we kept doing it.

Newcomb Institute: How would you encourage other Newcomb alumnae nationwide to get involved in their local book clubs, or maybe even host a book club if they’re on the fence?

Sandra: Well it’s very easy to host a virtual [book club], you don’t have to cook. You don’t have to clean your house — those are the pros. It’s just really nice, when Newcomb women get together there’s a certain vibe, a certain depth that ensues that’s very pleasurable and enjoyable.

There are very few cons unless you’re having difficulty focusing because of COVID. But then you can just [Sparknote] the book and still have a good discussion. The discussions that we have are very deep and enriching. Which are important to have, in this time when we’re so isolated.

Dori Lynn: I would say even in pre-COVID times, I would stress to anybody that was considering hosting, that they could do as little or as much when they wanted to.

Our first book club, we had a meal and beautiful wine, and I thought, “Wow [the host] set the bar so high, nobody that came is going to want to host this after her.” But we’ve also just met at a teashop and drank tea while we talked, and we’ve done [potluck style]. So, assuming that eventually we’ll be able to go back to doing it in person, you can do as little or as much as you want.

I think some people might be intimidated by the feeling that they need to lead the discussion, but our experience has been that the discussions flow very naturally, and if you just ask the simple question, “What did you think of the book?” the discussion will flow from there.

I don’t think it has to be particularly structured. I mean it could be, if a host wanted to do it that way, but I think Newcomb women are not necessarily shy, and they will share their opinions when asked and the conversation will flow. You don’t need a ton of participants to make it flow. We’ve had as many as 8 and as few as 4 — and we always have good conversations. It’s just a wonderful way to stay connected.

Sandra: The only thing that I would add is that if the questions are holding you back – it’s very easy to look [discussion] questions up online for most books. It’s a jumping-off point, but then the conversation will definitely flow. There’s very little friction in hosting virtually. And then you’ll only get to 3 questions out of the dozen you prepared.

Dori Lynn: Right, the conversation flows so naturally that you probably won’t get to all of the questions in the designated time.

And I would just say, like all alumnae events really, it’s a wonderful way to meet people that you have something in common with, that you probably would not otherwise meet.

I love that our book club events, along with many of our other [alumni] events in South Florida, we get people who have already celebrated their 50-year reunion, and we even have current students joining us for some.

As a matter of fact, the last in-person book club that we had, we had an accepted student, who hadn’t even attended Tulane yet. She reached out to me and asked if it would be appropriate for her to join us and I said “Absolutely.” So, it really just allows you to connect with people that you probably otherwise wouldn’t meet, but you’ll always be glad that you had a chance to.

Sandra: That is true, we’ve had many generations — women that were older than myself who graduated from Newcomb in the ’50s and ’60s, and this person who was about to attend.

So, it’s great to have a multi-generational outlook on topics that we can discuss that are all pertinent to women. It’s always a wonderful gathering when you get that, different viewpoints of women getting together and sharing.

The Fall 2020 NAA book selection is The Yellow House by New Orleanian Sarah Broom. Learn more or join our private NAA Facebook Group for regional clubs.