Jewish Journal

A Woman’s Voice Silenced

Marlene Adler Marks touched the lives of those she knew -- and even those she didn't.

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Sep. 12, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Marlene Adler Marks Photo by Leslie Wintner

Marlene Adler Marks Photo by Leslie Wintner

"Each Yom Kippur, a vesitgal loneliness creeps over me.... On this day, dispersion and alienation seep in, and I cling to my community like fog to the shore. And this is the way it should be." -- "Strangers No More" Marlene Adler Marks, Sept. 25, 1998

Marlene Adler Marks, whose column, "A Woman's Voice," explored her passion for Judaism and politics, as well as her struggle as a widow and single mother, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Sept. 5 after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 54.

The award-winning journalist and speaker was buried Monday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, where a standing-room-only crowd of some 300 mourners recalled that she had died as she had lived: with an almost superhuman measure of determination, energy and chutzpah.

"The most important aspect of Marlene was verve," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom.

"Marlene was brutally honest about everything she did and wrote, whether it was about politics or her own mortality," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told The Journal.

Marks, a former managing editor of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles from 1988-1996, continued writing and lecturing throughout her lengthy illness. Although she could barely speak or swallow in recent weeks, she planned a "hospice party" for the half dozen close women friends who had served as her caregivers, driving her to doctors, preparing food and staying overnight at her home.

Even while her lungs were completely overtaken by tumors last week, she walked herself into the Cedars-Sinai emergency room on Sept. 4.

In a letter read at Marks' funeral, her oncologist, Dr. Ronald B. Natale, a Roman Catholic, said her courage -- and her columns -- had jump-started his faith. "[They] rekindled my relationship with God, with whom I had not been on speaking terms for quite a few years," he wrote. "You see, I'd been very upset with Him for taking so many [patients] away from me."

During a lighter moment at the funeral, Marks' brother, Alan Adler, said that his sister "was so Jewish, she made me feel like a gentile." Their middle-class childhood home in Queens and Long Island had been more culturally than religiously Jewish, he said.

Marks was only peripherally involved in a Jewish sorority at Queens College, where she preferred political science classes and Vietnam War protests, according to her classmate, Marika Gordon. The same weekend as Woodstock, she flew out to Los Angeles (along with Gordon) to attend USC's graduate journalism program.

After earning her master's degree in 1971, Marks served as a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the Herald-Examiner, often writing about legal issues. In the early 1970s, she met attorney Burton Marks, who had argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not long after they were married in 1974, Marks was the only student to show up at Marcia Cohn Spiegel's class on women in the Bible at the University of Judaism. "Marlene was looking for a sense of community, of belonging, and was hoping to find that through her Judaism," Spiegel said. Marks was so inspired by the feminist interpretation of Torah that she went on to study at her local Reconstructionist temple, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, and publish a couple issues of a magazine called Los Angeles Jewish Life.

She considered becoming a rabbi, but instead approached The Journal's founding editor, Gene Lichtenstein, about starting a column in March 1987 -- two months before Burton, then in his 50s, died of heart disease. Her first effort was unsuccessful.

"It was about the Jewish community and politics and philosophy, and it was very exhorting," Lichtenstein said. "So I said, 'Look, what's the most important thing that's happening to you? Your husband is [dying], you're in your 30s, you have a 5-year-old daughter, and you must be furious.' And she looked at me in a strange way, and told me the story of a rabbi who had unsuccessfully tried to console her in the hospital.'"

Forty-eight hours later, Marks turned in what would become the first of more than 700 hard-edged, poignant, insightful columns. Titled "The Unwanted Visitor," it described how a rabbi had showed up to comfort her as she waited for Burton to come out of surgery. "It hadn't been comforting to me," she wrote. "I couldn't handle it. There is a time when even a rabbi can do no good at all."

After the raw emotion of those early columns, Marks, who was named The Journal's managing editor in 1988, went on to write about subjects as diverse as school board elections, her daughter Samantha's bat mitzvah and the 1992 riots.

"She beat the drum for the kind of liberalism that many in the community have come to reject," Journal Editor-in-Chief Robert Eshman wrote in an April 2002 editorial. "But a close reading of her columns proves that she has been anything but knee-jerk. She criticized the Reform movement for pandering to the least committed among its members; she took after feminists who were too eager to undo all tradition; she praised modern Orthodoxy for nurturing 'close-knit community ... [and] an ambitious standard of integrity.'"

Reflecting on Marks, Eshman said, "Marlene was always informed, passionate and open-minded. She was the gold standard as a columnist and as a human being."

Lichtenstein said that through her columns, Marks became "a voice for the community that was recognized and read."

As her readership grew, so did her influence. Marks became a pundit who appeared on programs such as radio station KCRW's "Which Way L.A." and PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to comment on issues from multiculturalism to the Rabin assassination. She was invited by the German government to visit the former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

More recently, she wrote for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and launched a popular series, "Conversations With Marlene Marks," at the Skirball Cultural Center (guests included Arianna Huffington and film producer Lynda Obst). Although she left The Journal to promote her anthology, "Nice Jewish Girls: Growing Up in America," in 1996, her weekly column continued to wield power.

"Marlene was the writer elected candidates went to to get their voice heard in the Jewish community," David Abel, an attorney and civic activist, told The Journal.

"Politicians who wanted to reach the community sought her advice," said Robert Hertzberg, Speaker emeritus of the state Assembly. "I did so often."

In December 1999, Marks was heavily involved with political activities -- and some 75 annual speaking engagements -- she got the news on her cell phone when driving to a friend's funeral: an X-ray had revealed a malignancy. Her diagnosis was dire: Marks -- who had never smoked -- had Stage 3 lung cancer and was given three months to live.

Nevertheless, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her lower left lung and began at least seven rounds of chemotherapy, each one of them "like a party," according to her friend, Susan Zachary, a talent manager and movie producer. "Marlene would go to Trader Joe's and buy all kinds of snacks for us to eat," Zachary said. "I never had to ask where her room was, because I could hear all her friends talking and giggling from down the hall. Dr. Natale would get mad at us because we were so rowdy."

The rowdiness (and cheerfulness) extended to Marks' radiation treatments for her brain metastases, which required her to wear a scary-looking head vice attached to a large metal ring screwed into her skull.

When she entered a period of remission in the summer of 2001, she thanked her circle of friends during a Havdalah ceremony on her 53rd birthday. After the party, she treated herself to an Alaskan cruise: "Then she wrote a column about making out with some guy on the boat while worrying that her wig was slipping," Zachary said. "That was so Marlene. It was hilarious."

Even after the cancer returned about six months later, Marks remained hopeful. Natale recalled that "the 2001 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology was ... attended by 24,000 cancer specialists from around the world and Marlene Marks."

But the columnist, who was honored at an April 2002 dinner at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, also had moments of anger and fear. When she learned that she had been given a placebo during a clinical trial of a new drug, she rushed over to pray with Kehillat's Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, a cancer survivor with whom she'd been studying Chasidic texts on suffering and joy.

Revealing as she was, Marks didn't tell all. For example, Marks had embarked upon end-of-life spiritual counseling with Rabbi Carla Howard, director of the Jewish Hospice Project-Los Angeles, but she refused to write about it in her column. "She was concerned that people look to her for inspiration and hope," Howard said. "She didn't want to alarm readers about the seriousness of her disease."

Several weeks ago, after a new cancer drug paralyzed one of her vocal chords, Marks managed to give an inspiring dvar Torah at her weekly Kehillat Israel Torah study group. (Marks was also an active member of the Malibu synagogue.) "She kept talking about the irony that the 'Woman's Voice' had lost her voice," said Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel. "And I kept telling her, 'Marlene, your vocal chords aren't your voice. Your presence is.'"

Just before Selichot, Marlene wrote her final column, about enjoying food and life, despite the fact that she could no longer swallow solid foods. The wry, wistful column, titled, "Oh So Sorry," outlined her wish that she had eaten "more hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut. And even more hush-puppies.... Yes, many of my apologies go to me."

Two days after the Aug. 30 column was published, Marks experienced difficulty breathing and, incredibly, the first significant pain of her illness. She started to write her Rosh Hashana column on Sept. 3, but early the next morning, she announced she had to go to the hospital. She met Natale at the Cedars-Sinai emergency room: "Now we prepare for the end," he said. Marks was unconscious by 10 a.m., even as eight rabbis and dozens of friends went to visit her over the next 33 hours.

Just before 4 p.m. on Sept. 5, five of Marks' closest girlfriends, including Spiegel and Gordon, gathered around her hospital bed. "Marlene was starting to turn blue and her breathing was much shallower," another friend, Diane Pershing, said. "I said, 'I think it's coming' ... so we stood in a circle, holding her hands and each others.'

"We told Marlene how much we loved her and how much she had changed our lives. At 4:05 p.m., we heard her stop breathing, and we saw the pulse in her neck stop. There was a stillness and we cried."

Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu synagogue -- who officiated at the funeral with Lewart and Carr Reuben -- noticed an irony when she arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter. "Marlene's body was so small, such a fragile little thing once her spirit had left," HaLevy said. "And I thought about how her spirit was so large it had once filled all of L.A. Her spirit had managed, through her column, to fill the room, the synagogue, the discussion group, the community."

Marks is survived by her 20-year-old daughter, Samantha; her stepchildren, Spencer and Peggye Marks; her parents, Jack and Anne Adler; her brother, Alan, and his life partner, Tom Frasca.

Donations in Marks' memory can be made to Dr. Ronald Natale's Cancer Research Foundation, 446 23rd St., Santa Monica, CA 90402; Beit T'Shuvah, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034; Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, and the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. Condolence letters sent to The Journal will be passed on to Marlene's family.

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