Bulletin writer Tamar Kaufman
succumbs to cancer at age 45

Bulletin Staff

When Tamar Kaufman was in high school, she decided she wanted a horse. So she started a business selling guinea pigs and raised enough money to buy a beauty named Monty.

Over the years, Kaufman's life was filled with Montys of one sort or another.

"Whether she was raising money for a horse or organizing a 4th of July hoe-down at the Jerusalem Hilton and getting the Swiss chef to make chocolate chip cookies, she had a lot of resourcefulness," said Kaufman's husband, Daveed Mandel.

"Anything she has ever wanted she did for herself."

That determination propelled Kaufman in her third and latest bout with cancer. Ultimately, however, it could not save her. The Jewish Bulletin's award-winning senior staff writer died Saturday morning at the El Cerrito home she and Mandel shared. She was 45.

"If I had to characterize Tamar," said her friend Pat Cohn, "I would say that she was devoutly fair, a real mensch, a bit quirky and always colorful."

Indeed, few can boast of a life as colorful as Kaufman's. Though she had several somewhat conventional interests, including photography, Broadway musicals, mystery novels and gardening, there were more offbeat sides to the quick-witted, curly haired New York native.

As a young woman, she studied horse science at a college in upstate New York. Then, in the 1960s, she moved to Sperry, Okla., to study at a school for blacksmiths. With that knowledge in hand, she and a girlfriend proceeded to open a business called Horseshoeing with a Woman's Touch. That venture took Kaufman up and down the East Coast in a pickup truck.

But as much as Kaufman loved animals and nature, little aroused her passion more than Israel, where she lived for almost a decade and which she hoped to make her permanent home one day.

"She just loved Israel," said Mandel, who met Kaufman while the two were students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University in the early 1970s. "She was here grudgingly," he said, noting that they returned to the United States in 1979 only because inflation and unemployment made it hard to make a living in Israel.

While in Israel, Kaufman immersed herself in the country's feminist movement, getting arrested for spraypainting the words "legalize abortion" on the walls of Jerusalem buildings. She started The New Volunteer, an informational publication for English-speaking tourists and residents. She worked as a bartender in Safed and a kibbutz tractor driver, and also wrote for The Jerusalem Post.

Even after she returned to this country, Israel remained in the forefront of her life. A news junkie who plastered her office bulletin board with political cartoons, Kaufman kept vigilant watch on Israeli current events through such publications as the Post and The Jerusalem Report.

A citizen of both Israel and the United States, she jumped at opportunities to interview Israelis, particularly right-wingers whom she could challenge with her liberal Zionist views--even though her stories were always fair and objective.

She peppered her English with Hebrew and Yiddish quips.

And she kept in touch with Israel through her taste buds, often asking friends traveling there to bring back sahleb, a sweet Arabic pudding made from orchid extract.

Still, Kaufman's longings for Israel never hindered her from building an immensely full life in the Bay Area.

For the last seven years, she co-hosted a Jewish conference on a local computer network called the Well. She led lively discussions on everything from how to best write Yiddish using English characters to the latest political developments in Israel.

"There was always room to discuss things with her because you were talking with someone who was good at seeing the facts and the human elements behind them," said Ari Davidow, her co-host on the Well's Jewish conference and a longtime friend.

According to Davidow, the outspoken Kaufman, who spent at least an hour a day shmoozing on various computer networks, made a point of confronting any online sentiments she found distasteful. "Tamar had no tolerance for racism or prejudice regardless of who it came from," he said.

That sense of justice reflected itself in many ways. In her nine years at the Bulletin, as well as in her private life, Kaufman championed the rights of the disabled, the disadvantaged, gays and lesbians, and women. She won three national Simon Rockower awards--the top prize for Jewish journalists--including one for an editorial on women's right to pray at the Western Wall.

"She brought to the paper a perspective on women in Judaism we hadn't had before," said Marc S. Klein, Bulletin editor and publisher. "She prided herself on being a Jewish feminist and felt they needed to be more represented."

Kaufman's own life made it easier to understand her empathy with the underdog.

Sixteen years ago, she survived a rare cancer in the parotid gland of her jaw. A decade later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same illness that killed her mother when Kaufman was just 14.

Most recently, in May 1993, doctors told Kaufman her breast cancer had metastasized to her brain, that it was inoperable and that she had a limited amount of time to live.

Kaufman faced the dire news with both realism and optimism. "She told me a couple of times she had defied the odds before and she expected she would again," recalled Cohn, who organized an extensive support network to assist Kaufman and her husband during the illness.

"Mainly she just talked in terms of 'this is my job now'--the implication being that instead of being the best damn reporter she could be, her job now was to be the most proactive, spirited, survival-oriented cancer patient she could be."

Kaufman approached her treatment aggressively, embarking on an intense program of radiation and, chemotherapy, a glut of medications, and alternative treatments that included acupuncture and Chinese herbs.

Through it all, she continued to write occasionally, both for the Bulletin and a women's news service. And she opened her home to a steady stream of visitors, listening eagerly as they spoke about their lives, and often challenging them to a game of chess or Scrabble, which she invariably won.

Up until the very end, when she lost the ability to swallow, Kaufman indulged her love for Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream. Most important of all, perhaps, she never stopped making jokes. "She celebrated life," Mandel said. "That's how we're going to remember her."

A funeral was held Monday in Albany and burial will follow in New York.

Kaufman is survived by her husband and brothers Bobby and Stuart Kaufman.

The family asks that donations be sent to the Tamar Kaufman Memorial Fund, New Israel Fund, P.O. Box 91588, Washington, DC 20090-1588. Donations made in Kaufman's name will help promote the status of women in Israel.

(c) Copyright Northern California Jewish Bulletin 1994. All rights reserved.