Jewish Journal

Brain Cancer Survivor-Turned-Poet Judi Kaufman

by Ryan Torok

October 14, 2011 | 3:04 am

Brain cancer survivor Judi Kaufman has suffered through three brain tumors – yes, three. Her first diagnosis, back in 1997, was that she’d suffered a stroke, but the neuro-oncology department at UCLA identified it as a tumor, which might have saved her life.

That’s why Kaufman, who Journal contributor Jessica Pauline Ogilive highlighted in the Journal’s 2010 annual mensch issue, founded, in 2001, Art of the Brain.

The nonprofit, earlier this month, raised $500,000 for the UCLA Neuro-oncology program, as a result of the nonprofit’ 12th annual gala event on Oct. 1.

It’s not that much money, Kaufman, said to me in a recent interview.

Although, it’s good in this economy, she added.

Since Art of the Brain’s inaugural event, the organization has raised “more than $5 million,” Ogilive said.

I met Kaufman following her reading of a poem she’d written. Kaufman participates in the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective, “which sponsors readings, publications, classes, seminars, and workshops,” according to jackgrapes.com (Grapes is the instructor at the weekly writers workshop that Kaufman attends, located in a non-descript brick building next-door, incidentally, to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, on mid-Wilshire Blvd.).

Called on to read her poem, Kaufman - stylish black top hat with her long frizzy blonde hair coming out of it, a black vest and a white blouse – went to the front of the room.

“I had a dream about you last night,” one attendee, the only male in the room, said.

“I dream about you every night,” said another workshop attendee.

The room, with comfy sofas, carpeting, coffee and snacks, the approximately 20 attendees sitting in a close circle and looking more awake than most do at 9 a.m., is haimish, a Yiddish word.

Kaufman smiled, seemed grateful, and she began reading.

“How ‘bout that Mitt Romney running around in circles? And what about that John Huntsman?” she read out loud, presenting her poem to a group of approximately 20 people…. Unsung heroes, those new tea party people. They sure know how to hate. They were hating Jews in Pasadena in the 1950’s, calling us pinkos and sinkos.”

Medical treatment, including chemotherapy, has affected her speech, and in a typed-up copy of her poem, which she gave to me afterwards, there are huge spaces between some of the words, alerting her to pause. She says that she does exercises, physical movements, with her yoga teacher that help with her speech, including rolling back-and-forth and from right to left on the ground. Before her surgeries, she was a good public speaker, she said.

People laughed with pleasure throughout Kaufman’s reading, enjoying Kaufman’s shouting out of the Republican candidates, who Kaufman had watched the night before during a Republican debate.

The assignment had been to write a sarcastic poem, one with a tone recalling the way people speak.

“‘A rodeo of relief pitchers of milk for the poor to let them all eat cake and hot crossed buns…all that mayonnaise and marshmallows.’ God, I don’t know where you pluck this stuff from, Judy, but it’s just, wow,” Grapes said, reading over an extra copy of Kaufman’s poem.

“She’s a poet - that’s where it stems from,” said a workshop attendee.

Looking over it some more, “Wow, this is great. This is great,” Grapes said.

Kaufman was raised in Pasadena and lives in Los Angeles. She attends these workshops because the left side of her brain, the analytical side, was taken out during surgery – she has trouble with time, with numbers, and so she’s turned to art, she explained.

As she said to Ogilive, “When I found out I could write well, it turned everything around. Art can give you something for nothing.”

In addition to raising funds for UCLA, Art of the Brain – which is run entirely by volunteers – refers brain cancer patients to places like L.A. Poets, so that they can use art as a healer.

For more information on Art of the Brain, visit artofthebrain.org.

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Ryan Torok is a staff writer and community reporter at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, where he has spent the past four years covering everything from social justice...

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