The past three weeks have been the most traumatic of my life.
Witnessing the carnage in Israel after Hamas’s pogrom against our people and the realization that Jewish lives don’t matter in too many campuses and capitals was heart-wrenching.
The 1400 lives lost, thousands injured, and hundreds abducted into captivity is the worst Jewish disaster since the Yom Kippur War.
Each victim has his or her own story to tell. But as I lost my beloved wife last week, I will tell her story.
Calling most any woman an “ashet Chayil,” a woman of valor, has been so overdone as to become almost trivialized. It’s almost like winning a trophy for coming in ninth place. But it fits like a glove for Gail Susan Kleinman.
Her world had many concentric circles.
She was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and in-law. We came from different worlds. I came from the Orthodox survivor community of the East Bronx, and she came from a third-generation American Reform family from the West Bronx. It was almost an intermarriage. But we met at the center. I like to refer to it as the golden mean. She was the glue who kept the family together through family celebrations, annual family vacations, and periods of mourning. Her culinary talents expanded many waistlines. She was “Lady Bountiful.”
She maintained friendships from different quarters for many decades from her days at the Bronx High School of Science, City College of New York, and beyond. We lived in multiple places throughout the United States, where she cultivated new and enduring friendships.
The 300 mourners who attended her funeral and the hundreds who visited us during shiva attested to her network of friends and admirers.
Her psychotherapy community
Gail was a talented clinical social worker with certification from the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis of New Jersey, a grueling six-year process. She was also on its faculty, mentored many aspiring psychotherapists, and helped dozens of patients navigate their difficult journeys with skill and compassion. I was told the story by one of her colleagues, who was approached by a couple at a soccer game asking if she knew Gail Kleinman. She acknowledged that she did. And then the couple told her how Gail had saved their family after the death of their 2-year-old daughter. She healed the family and gave them the strength to care for their other two children. Another told me during shiva of how Gail rehabilitated her relationship with her stepbrother.
Because her work was confidential, I will never know the many lives she bettered.
On a lighter note, she gave a lecture on the image of psychoanalysts in the cinema at an international psychoanalytic conference in Athens. Some of the clips shown satirized the profession with the patient reclining in the couch with the analyst’s voice hovering in the ether. It’s important to laugh at yourself. She took her practice seriously but was humble in her quest to learn more.
Her life beyond the New York–New Jersey bubble
Because I was a Jewish federation professional, we had to move to advance my career. She integrated into each new community seamlessly. She dealt with the trauma and difficulties associated with the birth of our daughter Beth, born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, who endured three surgeries during the first 10 months of her life. Even though far from family she was bolstered by a strong network of friends. Professionally, she supervised a network of group homes for the developmentally disabled for the largest social service agency in the city and became a certified rehabilitation counselor.
In Atlanta, she followed Elie Wiesel’s admonition. He was the opening lecturer for the “Treasures of Judaica from Danzig” exhibit that the federation sponsored at Emory University. During a discussion with survivors and their children preceding the lecture, Wiesel was asked by a member of the second generation what they could do as they could not undo the horrors their parents underwent. He responded: “Make babies.”
The next day, our son, Howard, was born.
Years later, when as CEO of the Minneapolis federation I picked Wiesel up at the airport for a major gifts dinner, I related this story to him. He went over to Gail and asked how Howard was doing and said her timing was impeccable.
Gail worked as a clinician at the Georgia Mental Health Institute, where she modeled the best of Judaism to her largely gentile peers.
In Minneapolis, she made enduring friendships, was the clinical director of a regional mental health center, and helped organize the many parlor meetings we held to raise funds for Operation Exodus, to resettle Soviet Jews to Israel and the United States, culminating in a rally attended by more than 5,000 people. The federation raised more than $12 million for this noble effort.
New Jersey Jewish communal life
Gail was an active philanthropist and leader. She chaired the business and professional division of UJA’s Women’s Philanthropy and served on its board, as well as on federation’s. At Agudath Israel, she served on the board and chaired the interfaith committee, which sponsored dozens of programs promoting interfaith relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, including Lutherans in Germany.
Her capstone was producing and promoting a cookbook, “Nourishing Our Souls,” which effected a “trifecta of good.” It taught the importance of promoting ecological balance by pursuing a vegetarian diet, sharing religious messages supporting this goal by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy, and recipes from more than a dozen different religious and ethnic cultures. hundreds of copies were sold, and all proceeds went to local food banks. Gail was a force multiplier of mitzvot.
Her display of courage and resilience
Gail had cancer for 11 years, the last 10 with incurable Stage 4.
For 10 years and 10 months of those years, she lived life fully. She did not want to be defined by her illness, and her life reflected it. We traveled the world during that time; we took dozens of trips encompassing four continents. When asked to speak about living with cancer to a Hadassah chapter, she spoke dispassionately and gave comfort and advice to those grieving. She never wallowed in self-pity.
During her last few months, she took our daughter and daughter-in-law to a spa vacation and our granddaughter to Beverly Hills, she celebrated our 50th anniversary with family on a cruise to Alaska, and she made two trips to the Berkshires. She even dropped off more copies of her cookbook to sell in Lenox, Massachusetts.
She lived life to the fullest while making the world a better place, a rare combination.
She was personable, extremely bright, curious, insightful, and funny, with an interesting range of interests. Her knowledge of music was encyclopedic; she’d been first violinist of the New York City Orchestra.
She was the quintessential ashet chayil. She was Gail Susan Kleinman.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.