Rita Lasar, 1931-2017

Rita Lasar has died. She was a businesswoman, peace activist, and denizen of the East Village of Manhattan. She was 85 years old.

Rita on the beach.Rita was born Rabecca Zelmanowitz in Cleveland, Ohio on September 16, 1931, the eldest of three children. Her parents migrated to the United States from British Mandate Palestine after the First World War. The family briefly relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then moved to New York City. In New York, they first landed in The Bronx, then settled more permanently in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rita went to elementary schools in both boroughs and briefly attended Yeshiva, but convinced her orthodox parents to allow her to go to Seward Park High School in Manhattan. There she focused on the study of French, Hebrew, and poetry.

In her senior year at Seward, Rita met Theodore Lasar, who had earned a degree in engineering from the City College of New York. She already knew Ted via his correspondence with her best friend, Esther. He had served in the Army in the Philippines during World War II and returned a “level 3 technician,” the equivalent of a staff sergeant. Over his course of duty Ted wrote many letters to Esther, who in turn showed them to Rita. “I fell in love with the letters,” she later recalled. “They were emotional, sad, and despondent and uplifting. It felt like poetry to me.” When he returned, they dated, then married on August 23, 1949. The newlyweds took up residence in a small apartment on West End Avenue and 74th street in Manhattan.

Anticipating a family, Rita and Ted searched for bigger living quarters, eventually moving to Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1952. Ted worked as an electrical engineer for various companies. They had their first son, Matthew, in 1954, then their second, Raphael, in 1960. But Rita hated being a conventional suburban housewife and Ted found Fort Lee boring. In 1963 the Lasars returned to Manhattan, taking up residence on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. There they reveled in the Village cultural scene, befriending many artists, poets, activists, and politicians. Two years later the couple started their own business, the Electric Eye Products Company, which made electrical security devices for retail stores. In search of an inexpensive manufacturing site, they relocated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, soon to be renamed the East Village. Rita ran the operation; Ted designed the products. The company prospered for over 25 years.

Then in 1989 Ted suffered a stroke. As it became clear that he would not fully recover, Rita shut the company down and the couple retired. In 1991 Ted died. After her mourning, Rita settled in for a comfortable senior life. But on September 11, 2001 terrorists attacked the nearby World Trade Center. Her younger brother Abraham (Abe) worked in the North Tower of the complex, and perished while waiting for firefighters to help a wheelchair bound co-worker escape the building.

Three days later President George W. Bush cited Abe’s courage in a speech before the National Cathedral, but Rita began to fear that her brother’s sacrifice would be used as justification for recklessness abroad. On September 17, she sent a letter to The New York Times that expressed this concern. “It is in my brother’s name and mine that I pray that we, this country that has been so deeply hurt, not do something that will unleash forces we will not have the power to call back,” she wrote. The letter attracted widespread attention. Dozens of spouses, children, and siblings of victims of the attack called or wrote to her to share their concerns.

Not long after this statement, Rita travelled to Afghanistan with three other victim family members to protest the US/NATO bombing of civilians. As the US deployed forces across the Middle East in the name of a “war on terror,” Rita chose another mission and path. “I will stay behind just as my dear brother did” she promised audiences. “I will stay behind and ask America not to do something we can’t take back.” In February of 2002 she became a co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. The group’s initiators, in the organization’s own words, shared “a belief that the violence that took their loved ones’ lives could spin out of control, and fear could be manipulated by politicians and the media to justify foreign and domestic policies that would increase violence while decreasing U.S. citizens’ rights and liberties over the years to come.” Rita spoke across the United States and around the world to protest the United States invasion of Iraq and to demand the closing of Guantanamo Prison.

Rita Lasar died of cancer at her East Village apartment on Sunday, January 8, 2017, in the care of her family. She is survived by her two sons, Raphael and Matthew, her granddaughter Emma Rachel, her daughters-in-law Karen Barker and Sharon Wood, and many friends. She is buried beside her husband at Calverton National Cemetery in New York.

Matthew Lasar

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