My dear wife of 20 years, Ellen, passed away July 2 at 64. She was a dynamo, a warm and loving, funny and kind, caring and brilliant best friend to everyone in our shul, to so many whom she befriended during her prior two decades in the San Fernando Valley, to coworkers at UCLA — and to me.
For us it was love at first croak, the night of February 27, 2000, when I first phoned her. I was hoarse from a flu and so was she, but we talked for hours, sounding like frogs in a Budwesier commercial. The deal was sealed three nights later when we met the first time, for 7:00 p.m. dinner at Pat’s in L.A. We found that we both came from ethical, honorable working-class families, where values were more important than money.
We found we both were self-made, secularly educated, centrist Orthodox. She taught me the difference between a bactrian and a dromedary. Who knew? I tried to salvage my dignity by telling her that, well, I know a few words in Russian. She said she did, too: “Get . . . Moose . . . and . . . Squirrel!” That was it. I had to marry her — just couldn’t tell her yet. Too soon. And then the waiter came: “It’s 10:30. They’re closing the kitchen. Will you guys be ordering anything tonight?”
When she was diagnosed with glioblastoma in July 2017, she was told she had 12-15 months left, like John McCain, Ted Kennedy, and 85 percent of those stricken with it. But Ellen lived alongside it for three complete years, among only 10 percent who do so. No, she did not “die after a long battle with cancer.” Rather, she was too busy living and celebrating life every day. Even on “Chemo Day,” she sandwiched in her multi-hour infusion between an hour of morning shopping at O.C. Kosher for Shabbat foods and weekday supplies, and four hours of cooking later that evening for the 15 young adults, ages 28-45, who would be joining us for Ellen’s weekly four-course Shabbat dinner, some Torah, some American Jewish history, and half an hour of singing zemirot (Shabbat table songs) and bentsching.
Ellen had been a regular kid, born in Binghamton, in Upstate New York. She got good grades, won city-wide writing contests, even graduated second in her high school class. When the local Conservative temple moved to a fancier neighborhood, her parents moved to the city’s Orthodox synagogue, and Ellen became active in NCSY, the teen group. With her love of singing and dancing, her infectious laughter and gorgeous smile, she became chapter president, and hers was named “Chapter of the Year.” She was just starting.
At Syracuse University, she graduated fourth in her class and met her previous husband at the campus Kosher Meal Plan. They moved to Los Angeles where he attended law school. Despite her public school background, Ellen attended Torah classes with gusto throughout her college and adult years, and she became a self-taught scholar of real Judaism including halakhic texts and rabbinic responsa. She could research sources in the Mishnah and Talmud, Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the Mishnah Brurah of the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law). Yet four years of public school choir meant she also always won the contest at the office winter party to name esoteric lyrics to esoteric Christmas carols.
Ellen built an impressive secular career at UCLA as a certified fraud examiner and a certified internal auditor. Soon she was named manager of investigations, focusing on allegations of white-collar crimes like fraud and embezzlement. One of her investigations was written up in the Los Angeles Times and made her nationally famous in her field. She was named to the editorial board of her field’s main publication, and her write-up of that famous case became the first chapter in the leading textbook in the field.
But even as rebbetzin Ellen blazed a sterling 31-year career at UCLA, her main passion gained full expression after she became a rabbi’s “partner in crime.” Full of energy, a remarkably fabulous dancer, a singer with a voice so sweet that people in shul would sing softer, Ellen now enjoyed the platform to touch people’s lives religiously.
She loved “Seinfeld” and “Srugim,” “Fargo” and “The Producers,” but her greatest passion was Judaism, Torah, spreading love and caring. It was because of her inspiration that I returned to my rabbinic career, became a successful law professor at UCI and at Loyola, and emerged as a widely published opinion writer.
Our home became a center for Torah classes, minyans and for people needing pastoral care. There was not a facet of the shul where Rebbetzin Ellen was not central. She had the most amazing memory but used it only to encourage, never to remind of past mistakes. When she retired after her diagnosis, she began voraciously reading great biographies of leading American Presidents, books on the Civil War, and most recently Teddy Roosevelt. So we had to see “Arsenic and Old Spice,” as we did fifteen or so plays every year. Until her last month or so, her energy was so boundless that we called her “The Energizer Rabbit.” After we visited Israel last year, she began learning conversational Hebrew and we watched the nightly news in Hebrew on Israel’s Channel 11. She awoke daily at 5:00 a.m. to daven the morning prayers and then “FaceTime” her father on the East Coast.
A week of shiva drew over a thousand expressions of sorrow and eight separate Zoom sessions to accommodate all. She was laid to rest in Israel. May her soul be blessed forever.
RABBI DOV FISCHER, adjunct professor of law at two major Southern California law schools, writes political and social commentary for The American Spectator and for Israel National News (Arutz 7) and is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.