June 10, 2009
What Makes the Rabbi’s Wife Run?
Eliana Wolpe had been running for six hours and fifteen minutes and 26.2 miles when she finally crossed the finish line. Dripping sweat and beaming, she jogged past the screaming crowds with her arms stretched triumphantly over her head. For her, the live rock music that played ubiquitously at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon sounded as good as a victory hymn. After she finished, Eliana locked eyes with the people she was running for — her husband, Rabbi David Wolpe, and their 12-year-old daughter, Samara, who had stood huddled together on the sidelines waiting to embrace her.
Eliana burst into tears, and the threesome collapsed into a tight embrace, gripping one another and sobbing. Then the rabbi kissed her. And as hoards of other runners filed past, the Wolpes celebrated their moment of triumph. This was, for them, a victory over illness, a repudiation of the cancers that have haunted them and destroyed their sense of safety. But even as they sought hope in a new day, they knew their battle wasn’t over.
It began in the fall of 1997, soon after the Wolpes moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey with their 9-month-old daughter to begin a new life. Already an accomplished author and speaker, the rabbi was in demand as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues across the country and had not planned to become a pulpit rabbi. But when Sinai Temple, one of the country’s largest Conservative congregations, offered him a position, the couple decided to accept. Then, three months after they arrived, Eliana was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive reproductive cancer.
The terror of cancer would plague the Wolpes relentlessly. In October 2003, Rabbi Wolpe suffered a grand mal seizure that led to the discovery of a brain tumor. Fortunately, it turned out to be benign. Then, in August 2006, the rabbi was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a cancer he continues to fight today.
These battles with illness played out before a 2,000-family synagogue. Yet if in private the Wolpes felt pain, in public they strove to appear as normal as possible. They treated their congregation like they treated their daughter — putting others’ needs and security before their own, assuring everyone as best they could that life would go on as expected, even when they feared it might not. The Wolpes tried to be honest and open about their cancers, but there were limits: How could they offer comfort about their situation when they couldn’t comfort themselves?
Each coped differently. Rabbi Wolpe saw his coping with illness as a teaching opportunity; Eliana recoiled from the spotlight. The rabbi avoided thinking about it; Eliana pored over medical journals. He wrote books, gave lectures and thrived in his career. She focused on their daughter, scheduled her husband’s medical visits and demanded for him the very best care. “I never cared if I was offending anybody along the way,” she said.
In recent months, however, Eliana has found that cancer has offered her something else, as well. Once a deeply private person, cancer has pushed her to open up for the first time.
“Holy crap, Kath!” Eliana shouts at her personal trainer one day earlier this spring. “There’s no way I’m doing this.” Maybe she’s feeling a bit nervous because Jake Gyllenhaal is standing 10 feet away from her, and she’s not used to being watched at the gym. But her trainer, Kathy Faulstich insists: “It’s supposed to be challenging.”
At 43, she is cancer-free and shows no signs of her battle with the disease. She is lean and fit and incredibly youthful looking, with piercing, deep green eyes. Yet she is also lighthearted, and laughs with the pitch and frequency of a happy child.
She gets down on all fours and stretches her body over a basu, essentially a giant foam ball. It’s a fat-burning exercise, which helps diminish the aftermath of her newly voracious appetite (the very mention of pecan caramel tofu cheesecake sends her into a tizzy).
Eliana finds swearing a relief when her muscles ache and admits that her physical therapist gets it the worst. He’s had to heal her after shin splints, a sprained ankle and the requisite bruising and chafing that comes with long slow distance runs. This past weekend, she ran a full 20 miles — the most she’d run before the marathon, and spent Monday morning decompressing between ice packs. Not that the pain is without positive side effects: Her body, after all, is in better shape than it was when she was in her 20s.
It will take three days for Eliana to talk through her cancer stories. We meet at the gym, in her home and at cafes. But there is no place she feels completely comfortable talking about it. “I avoid thinking about this at all costs,” Eliana says one morning while sitting at her kitchen table. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply, bracing herself for what is to come.
“There’s something inherent in cancer that makes you feel old and makes you feel tired. The first thing I think it took from me, at the age of 31, was my youth. It makes you grow up way too fast, because it makes you face your mortality. The question is, how do you live after you know what your mortality is? Everything else is just an illusion, and you want that back. That’s something every cancer survivor shares.”
Eliana’s cancer was discovered when she was 31, during a routine pap smear. She was a health nut, a vegetarian who drank filtered water, used only BPA-free plastics and slept on an organic cotton mattress. She was a decade ahead of the green curve, practicing healthy living before it became so popular. Still, her doctors told her the cancer was extremely aggressive and that she should have surgery right away. Other options, like chemotherapy, would take longer and were less reliable. The surgery was likely to save her but with bitter consequences — she could not give birth to any more children.
“There were a lot of decisions we had to make at the time,” she recalls. “In the end, I ended up making only one, and that was that I wanted to live. Everything else just fell by the wayside.”
Six weeks after surgery, she returned with her daughter to mommy-and-me classes. But she couldn’t relate to the other mothers. She couldn’t share their bright baby optimism or trivial concerns about the best car seat. “There was a huge gap between me and everybody else,” she says. “They were still in that postpartum bliss, and I was completely elsewhere. That was very hard.”
In a separate interview, Rabbi Wolpe said his wife’s cancer drove them into a “superprivate place.” For a while, before they told anyone, Eliana would attend Shabbat services at Sinai. “I used to go there with Samara, and I would stand there with her, and I would be holding her in my arms, and I would just weep. People saw me, and I didn’t care. I would just cry.” Finally, she wrote a letter to the congregation, explaining she had cancer, that she’d be changing her name from “Eileen” to “Eliana” and that she wouldn’t be having any more children. She didn’t want people to constantly ask. She also quietly withdrew from public life, a choice a rabbi’s wife can make these days, but not always easily.
“As the wife of someone who’s as public as David is, who is such a bright star, you’re sort of automatically in the shadow,” she says. “It’s a very comfortable place for me; it’s a place that I feel safe. The bottom line is he and I are a team; there’s no question about that, it’s just that I’m the silent partner.”
She chose instead to devote herself to raising their daughter, whose presence overshadowed the fertility issue.
“If I had no children, I’m sure it would have been everything I was thinking about,” Eliana says. “All I really cared about was being there to raise her. I didn’t feel like my hands were empty; I had this little perfect blessing.
“There’s a saying that God prepares the salve before inflicting the wound.”
Life went on until six years later, in October 2003, when Eliana got a call that her husband was suffering a severe seizure. In the middle of a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, he had lost consciousness. Within 10 days, Rabbi Wolpe had an operation to remove a benign brain tumor. But after the surgery, the threat disappeared.
Three years later, he wouldn’t be so fortunate. In the summer of 2006, Rabbi Wolpe was about to travel to Israel and Rome when he discovered a swollen lymph node. A month later, he was diagnosed with aggressive follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which has no cure.
“It was crushing,” Eliana says with tears in her eyes. Denial quickly set in. “I could only say one thing, and that was ‘no.’ How do you tell your child this is happening again?” Rabbi Wolpe began chemotherapy and entered remission in January 2007. Concurrently, he was also treated with Retuxin, a drug that can extend the possibility of relapse from a year after chemo to between four to six years. Last November, the rabbi had his final Retuxin treatment; then there was nothing left to do except wait.
So Eliana started running.
“My lymphoma is more a lived reality for her than it is for me,” Rabbi Wolpe said during an interview in his office. “I think about it every now and then with a sort of sickening tug at my stomach, but then I try to forget it and move on. And Elli, who has either greater sensitivity or less adequate filtering, I think thinks about it constantly.”
The rabbi talks about his cancer matter-of-factly, keeping his emotions at a distance, though his words betray deep feelings.
“It’s not possible for me to think of any future event divorced from this — my daughter’s bat mitzvah, which I hope I’m healthy for; my daughter’s wedding, which I hope I’ll see. The future is always a conditional tense for me, and it never was before. It’s if I see it, not when I see it; if I have grandchildren, if I’m here to see them. I think about that all the time.”
When her husband went into remission, Eliana sought distractions; she considered enrolling in law school or getting a job. Soon she began frequenting the gym. Prompted by her friend, Jonathan Vakneen, who joked that even a religious Jew could be an athlete, Eliana decided to run a marathon as a means of taking some control of her life. She attended an informational meeting at the West Hollywood public library, and at first was somewhat nonchalant about the whole thing. But after hearing her soon-to-be coach Chris Wilno tell his story, she was hooked. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training offered her a community where many either shared her experience with cancer or were committed to finding a cure. It was the perfect marriage of her aspiration for physical health and her need for a new spiritual focus.
“It was the first thing in 12 years that I was doing for me,” she says of joining Team In Training. “It was the antithesis of everything about Los Angeles I don’t like; it’s all about helping other people. It’s very Jewish that way.”
Eliana started training with her team three times a week, running in 30-minute increments. She also hired a personal trainer. After each significant milestone, she would go home and blog about her experience, mixing personal reflections with literary quotes. She set a goal to raise $10,000, but an outpouring from the Jewish community (including a $20,000 check, her largest, from Holocaust survivor Max Webb), brought her total to $104,000 in only four months. Even strangers from across the country caught word and made donations.
In the end, Eliana was named the nation’s largest fundraiser for this run. Accordingly, she was asked to be the inspirational speaker at the kickoff party the night before the marathon. It was her first time speaking in public.
“I never thought that Elli was going to be a marathon runner,” Rabbi Wolpe says. “But when she cares about something, she’s very driven, very focused and very hard to divert. This marathon has dominated our lives — she couldn’t do it unless it took over who she was. That’s partly because of the cause, but also partly because of the person. That sort of passion for the comprehensiveness of what you’re doing — that’s hers.”
Three days after she finished the run in San Diego, Eliana registered for the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco, which will take place in October. She is determined to continue raising money.
“I’m breaking my silence to find a cure,” Eliana said, her voice clearly showing her conviction. “I’m doing it because it’s not about me. This is about finding a cure. That’s the only reason I’m doing it.”
Whether her running can save her husband can’t be known. But Eliana Wolpe plans to continue, because, at least for the moment, it is her cure.
To visit Eliana Wolpe’s blog, visit this story at pages.teamintraining.org/los/rnr09/elianawolpe.