Personal Reflections of Gail Ellen Weinstein
Thursday, December 9, 2010 ~ Temple Emanu-El ~ San Francisco, California
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe
I have dreaded this moment for several years now. Like many of us, I have pictured it in my head and repeatedly shaken it off, so as not to remind the angel of death that Gail had already lived far longer than her original diagnosis allowed. You see, these are the first words of remembrance that I have ever delivered at Emanu-El for a friend. Yes, I have given eulogies and other words of dedication. Most of the time I know the person in passing, if at all. But Gail is my first Temple Emanu-El friend to pass away. And I really miss her. But given that I and all of us have been preparing for this day for many months, I'll share a few of my thoughts.
Every synagogue has a Gail Weinstein. That's what went through my mind the first time I met her. Every synagogue has its resident humorous contrarian. The job description is quite clear. Anyone aspiring to the position must have a keen wit, a wide grin and a sharp sense of both irony and sarcasm. They must be caring but not mushy, honest but never mean, smart but not haughty. And so I sized up Gail Weinstein and she playfully sized me up in return. I could hear her thinking to herself - Look what we have here, a new young rabbi - a clean slate, a new block of clay to shape. I think I'd like to take him under my wing and show him a thing or two. And so she did. I am one of dozens of Gail Weinstein products in the sanctuary today - individuals who were shaped and molded by Gail's caring guidance.
And now this congregation lacks its Gail Weinstein. I don't see another one coming around anytime soon. I understand that mine is a rather narrow vantage point of Gail's life. I have only known her during her few years of battling cancer. I listen to all of you today and hear the story of a woman who I met far too late in life. But it wasn't too late to become close friends.
I think I first met Gail at Torah Study, our own collection of colorful characters which I was proud to join. By this time, Gail's cancer was already diagnosed. Truth be told, I never really knew a fully healthy Gail Weinstein. It would have been nice. But I arrived each Shabbat morning, hoping to see Gail there. If I took a point too far in study, Gail would playfully sigh, "Oh Yoni". At points of interest and curiosity, she would smile, lean back with her hands behind her head, close her eyes and take it all in. She would chuckle and guffaw, and trade smirking looks when things got out of hand. But she was always kind. And she would always stay after to tell me how she thought it went and what I could do a little bit better the next time. After all, she was this synagogue's Gail Weinstein.
And so I learned, little by little. We would go out for lunch, and Gail would fill me in on her dramatic endeavors. Traveling to Israel to make Middle East Peace through creative writing. Hiking in the wilderness, even in times of deep sickness. Dating. Writing and teaching and volunteering and blogging and creating and nurturing and loving. I came to realize that this was not just any Gail Weinstein, but the original form upon which all other synagogue's Gail Weinstein's were created and only hoped to mimic. And I realized something else: that I was just one in a vast world of friends, students, immigrants, refugees and others in need of a touch of loving care and a guiding hand to which Gail carefully tended. And as I became overwhelmed, Gail would slow down, calmly sip her water and smile, before asking, "So what about you?" The question was unanswerable. How could I say anything in the face of this creature of Herculean strength? Someone who truly lived each day to the fullest? Sensing my silence, she would go on, "So tell me about the baby."
As a rabbi, I would be remiss to not mention today being the final day of Channukah. This is the festival of lights, when we come together in dark times and share the warmth of the oil and enjoy the oily friend sustenance of latkes and jelly doughnuts. It is a time which calls for comfort food. It is fitting that Gail passed away in the last days of Channukah, when the light is brightest and serves as a central force, bringing others around. Gail was the light for so many of us. She was my light as she sat proudly in this week's new wig or hairdo to accommodate her latest chemotherapy treatments. She was my light just one month ago, as our friends from Beit Tefilah synagogue in Tel Aviv, who hosted Gail for nearly a month as she sought treatment in Israel, played a concert in this sanctuary. Too tired and uncomfortable to sit properly, Gail put her legs up on the bench, slouched back, closed her eyes, and lightly swayed to the music. She was my light last week, as she held my six month old daughter, Samara, in her arms while propped up in her hospitable bed, grinning from ear to ear. And now this evening, as Channukah ends, these lights will be allowed to burn out and we will put our Channukiahs away for another year. And the world becomes a bit darker as we will miss our circle of friends, gathered round the glow of the candles, each flame dancing and swaying - nine little Gails, illuminating the darkness. And for the rest of my life, when Channukah comes around, I will think of Gail Weinstein as the embodiment of ideal of living one's life as a source of light.
Goodbye, my dear friend Gayle. I'll miss you.
"What an abundance I have in my life," Gail said two weeks ago as she looked around her hospital room filled with friends.
I remember taking a slow walk with Gail after her chemo treatment a few years ago and watching her stop to smell the flowers as we passed the butterfly garden. She smiled with deep pleasure.
I remember shopping at Safeway the weekend that Gail found out that she had cancer. "This is my best friend," she introduced me to the grocery clerk as she was buying food for dinner. "She found out that I had cancer and immediately flew down from Seattle to be with me." I smiled weakly at the clerk, feeling my uncomfortable shyness and wonder at how Gail could share even the most intimate details of her life with strangers.
One of Gail's wishes in her Advance Health Care Directive is for people to remember how she was before she got sick. But my most vivid memories of Gail are from the last six years since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a prognosis of six months to two more years of life. That day she looked death straight in the eye and decided to fight it. And she embraced life more fiercely, enjoying every minute, making plans for more projects to bring different people together through storytelling, plans for vacations with her daughter Hannah, plans to help other women with cancer. She always said that wasn't afraid of death, but she just wasn't ready to go. She had too much to do, people to see and places to go. But most of all she had plans to stick around to be Hannah's mother for as many years as she could.
When I remember Gail before cancer, I remember a woman who struggled with taking on too many projects, who wanted to do it all - write textbooks, lecture around the country, teach classes at the university, be on the TESOL board, start an urban hiking club, learn to do the lindy hop, find love and a boyfriend, and of course, make a good life for Hannah. She tired me out just talking to her. She tired herself out, too, but she couldn't help herself. She was driven. She would see a need for something and would organize a group to get it done.
But after she was diagnosed with cancer, Gail realized that her time was limited. She would tell me, "Hilary, you need to help me prioritize. I'll tell you about all of the projects that I want to do, and you tell me which ones I should do and which ones I should drop." So she would tell me about them all one by one. I would ask her my leading questions, and then authoritatively tell her that she can't do it all. She needs to pick one or two and drop the rest. She would reluctantly agree and would choose one or another to focus on. A few months later I would find out that she didn't drop any of them.
Gail was the busiest person I knew. But when you were with her, she made you feel that you were the most important person in her life. About a month ago when I called her up to see how she was feeling, she spoke to me in a shaky voice about the painful struggles she was having keeping at bay the production of fluid that was filling up her body and needed to be drained every couple of days. But then she asked me, "So how are you doing?" What could I say? How could any of my problems compete with hers? "Great!" I answered. "Any men in your life?" she asked.
Rabbi Jaffe began today by reminding us of what Gail would do if she were here today. In addition to getting us to greet one another and share personal stories, she would also tell a joke.
We had a friendly joke-telling competition: I would tell a joke, and she would come up with a better one. One time I told her a joke that she really loved, so I'm quite proud of this one:
"So, a rabbi, priest, and minister walk into a bar, and the bartender says, 'Is this some kind of joke?"
I'm glad you're laughing because I was so worried that after Gail passed, I'd be the only one in the world who laughed at that joke.
Thank you to Gail's family for this opportunity to share a few words about Gail and her gifts as a colleague, mentor, and professor.
I had known about Gail as a scholar and textbook publisher way before I became her colleague at SFSU. In fact, in 1994, I was a graduate student, rather new to this field, and I saw her give a presentation at an international teacher's conference in Baltimore. I sat at the back of a jam-packed room and marveled at the energy, the comedy, the inspiration she exuded from the front of the room as she talked about the power of learner stories, and their role in transforming instruction in English language classrooms.
Ten years later, in November 2004, I would meet Gail again. This time she was interviewing me for a faculty position at SF State. She greeted me cheerily and invited me to take a walk around campus so that we could get to know one another. It was unusually sunny and warm that morning, and very uncharacteristic of San Francisco in late November -- no trace of fog as the skies were clear and bright blue. After a few polite exchanges of our areas of interest, she stopped suddenly and said, "I have the perfect place to take you" and she proceeded to walk me to the top of the Cesar Chavez Student Center. Some of you may know this 5-story building very well at the heart of our campus, but for those of you who don't, it boasts a unique architectural design -- she took me up a long cascade of stairs -- until we came to the top of one of the building's pyramids -- 5 stories high. She walked the flights with ease, not breathing hard, talking along the way up about the program. I was a runner at the time and could keep up with her, but I was wearing panty hose and a suit, and remember thinking, "sheesh who is this person, taking me on a hike the morning of a professional interview???" but as we reached the top, we paused in silence and took in an incredible view. There was Mount Davidson, the stretches of city that disappeared into the ocean, and the neighborhoods of San Francisco. And there at the top of the pyramid was where she began telling me of her own love for the TESOL program, her desire to strengthen connections between teacher training and service learning, and her absolute certainty that learners' stories were the answer to so many problems in our adult ESL system.
Gail offered me a vision that morning for how our program at SFSU could make its mark in the field of adult ESL education. She had taken me to the highest point on campus to convey what many of us know about her: her visions are ambitious, breath-taking, and always bigger than who we are as individuals. While the cancer diagnosis in August 2005 took her off track temporarily, within a few weeks of surgery, we were at her kitchen table creating wish lists and timelines in pursuit of that vision.
The accomplishments on Gail's resume over the past five years helped to translate that vision into action, and the resume is hardly what you would expect from someone who was fighting cancer. The creation of a new university organization The Center for Immigrant and Refugee Community Literacy Education, the hosting of a health literacy forum, the institutionalization of a new graduate certificate in immigrant literacies, the writing of 2 textbooks, 3 scholarly publications, professional awards, including the highest award a professional in our TESOL field can receive. These accomplishments came despite cancer. When her speaking engagements took her all over the country, and then off to other countries, such as Japan, Israel, Russia, I would voice quiet concern that "maybe she should sit this one out and rest". She would shake her head - no, there was no resting. She refused to let cancer dictate the timetable on which she pursued her vision.
What I will miss most about Gail is the feeling of "hiking up" that pyramid with her, those moments when we would be equally inspired by a conference presentation, during faculty meetings when we'd catch each other's eye to signal "I just thought of a great idea and can't wait to tell you" - when we'd call each other at 7:30am or 10 at night to share what she called "brain farts"…
To colleagues from SFSU here today - Gail has taught us one's personal struggle can always give way to collective action. Through teacher training and innovative curriculum development, her fight for improved health care in the immigrant community was just as passionate as her own determination to beat cancer.
To our many students and alumni who today are feeling the deep loss of a inspiring mentor - remember Dr. Weinstein's words: "Do what matters to you most….Articulate your vision, build toward it. None of your efforts are wasted. They all give you experiences and lessons that will serve you anywhere."
To her family, rest assured that her professional legacy will live on at SFSU and through the work of teachers around the world. On behalf of our college dean and university president, I wanted to let you - Bea, Gene, Bruce, Hannah - that processes have been set in motion such that the work Gail began years ago will live on.
And to my friend Gail, thank you for including me in your life's story, for sharing your vision, for teaching me that when you do things that truly matter, there truly is no separation of the professional from the personal.
Return to Gail's memorial page