Honoring Marlene

Marlene Adler Marks’ first column for this paper appeared in March 1987. It was titled “The Unwanted Visitor.” It was about a rabbi who showed up to comfort Marlene as she waited in the hospital for her husband, Burton, to come out of surgery. “It hadn’t been comforting to me,” Marlene wrote, shortly before Burton died. “I couldn’t handle it. There is a time when even a rabbi can do no good at all.”

After that column came 700 more — the great majority of them thought-provoking, poignant, hard-edged, insightful. Though she left her position as managing editor of this paper several years ago, she has continued to write a column, almost every week for 15 years.

That is a hard, hard thing to do. Marlene made her task more difficult by refusing to settle for mere musings. What she wrote was the result of hours spent interviewing, attending events, researching, phone calling. She treated the Los Angeles Jewish community as the big, serious enterprise it is. She brought out its diverse, often conflicting voices, she dissected our relationship to the larger society, she examined our spiritual lives and ethical values as they are tested in real life. “Jews are the link between those who feel comfortable only with the haves and those who speak only to the have-nots” she wrote in a column just after the 1992 riots. “This is where Jewish power lies, though for who knows how long?”

Marlene reported from the intersection of Jewish power and Jewish insecurity, of Jewish pride and Jewish doubt. She beat the drum for the kind of liberalism that many in the community have come to reject. Even in liberalism’s post-Dukakis Kick-Me phase, she defended it, “in the old-fashioned meaning of tolerant about the extension of rights and freedoms within American society. Jewish liberalism results from our experience in exile,” she wrote, “our tradition of empathy for the stranger, our knowledge that all freedoms are knit together, the precious garment we all wear.”

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, beliefs worth fighting for, an ambitious standard of integrity.”

The ongoing struggle of Jewish Republicans to create a more tolerant party always drew her support, or sympathy. Marlene made enemies and friends — a good columnist inevitably makes both. But what stunned me when she announced in these pages that she had cancer, was how much goodwill and concern poured in for her from friends and enemies. She has fought the cancer — yet another unwanted visitor — more bravely and openly than anyone could be expected to. Her columns detailing that struggle comprise some of the most powerful writing I have ever read.

Marlene is being honored by Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades this Sunday night, April 28, at 6 p.m. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to honor her: 10 years after riots tore apart the city she loves, and 10 years after that city has struggled to understand itself and go forward.

Marlene, more than most of us, knows what it means to understand oneself, and move forward. She has been a gift to this paper, and this community.

For information and reservations for the benefit honoring Marlene Alder Marks, call Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-2328.