January 23, 2019

Larry Neinstein: An appreciation

If Dr. Lawrence S. Neinstein’s life had a theme song, it was “Forever Young.” At countless family and chavurah events celebrating important lifecycle moments, Larry would strap on his guitar and in that sweet, wonderful voice, lead us all in singing Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth. “May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong and may you stay forever young.” How appropriate that the world’s leading expert in adolescent medicine – a man who dedicated his professional life to teaching about and treating young people – adopted “Forever Young” as the anthem of his extraordinary life.  The longtime director of the Engemann Student Health Center at the University of Southern California who also served as USC’s senior associate dean of  student affairs and head of the Division of College Health at the Keck School of Medicine died April 27 of cancer. He was 66.

My wife, Susie, and I met Larry and Debbie when David and Shira Milgrom-Elcott generously invited us to join their chavurah, a group of close friends who had grown up together in Los Angeles, studied together in Hebrew High, spent summers together at camp.  We all had little kids, we were all excited about infusing Jewish ritual with creativity. We were eager to share life’s journey together. We traveled together to Yosemite and Big Sur; we hiked mountains and beaches; we shared holidays and Shabbats and bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and, more recently, grandbaby namings. We became close and trusted friends, sharing our joys and our oys as life unfolded over the past 40 years.

Larry loved these times together, acting as our in-house chazzan (we lent him to Valley Beth Shalom for the High Holy Days), our Hollywood Bowl organizer, our travel agent. He handled our diverse needs with calm, measured and comforting skill, the soulful guide for our experiences. He understood the power of the family as the most important influence in our lives.

Just after the end of the Gulf War, Larry approached me with an idea: Nearly all American families gather on one day of the year: Thanksgiving. Why not create a family ritual for Thanksgiving modeled after the Passover seder, a way to elevate the holiday from gorging on turkey and football games? We called it “Freedom’s Feast: A Thanksgiving Seder,” and with the guidance of our colleague Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, it has been adopted by thousands of families across the United States, transforming Thanksgiving into a celebration of the many blessings we enjoy in this country.

“Freedom’s Feast” was only one of Larry’s unending stream of creative ideas. His charming children’s book “Zeide, Why Are You Wearing White Tennis Shoes on Yom Kippur?,” beautifully illustrated by Lorraine Bubar, has been enjoyed by thousands of families. Whenever Larry would call, I knew he had another great idea he was excited to explore. 

I will leave it to others to describe his groundbreaking contributions to adolescent medicine. Suffice it to say how proud we all were when the latest edition of his go-to handbook was titled “Neinstein’s Adolescent and Young Adult Health Care: A Practical Guide,” considered the “bible” of the field. As in Hollywood, when your name is above the title, it is the ultimate recognition of respect for your contribution, a legacy that will continue to enhance the lives of teenagers and young adults, not just at USC’s amazing Engemann Student Health Center, which Larry built, but throughout the world.

Larry approached his two battles with cancer armed with a scientist’s knowledge, a researcher’s curiosity, and the hope that fuels a doctor’s belief that disease can be defeated. Yes, he survived far longer than anyone could imagine. In his early 20s, in his first battle with cancer, he was told there was a 99 percent chance he would die within a year, but he was in the 1 percent. Then, in 2005, he was given a maximum of three more years, but survived more than a decade. He lived not only because of the dedication of his doctors, caregivers, and family, helped by his courageous will. In long, detailed emails to those closest to him, Larry shared with us his medical condition, complete with an ongoing recitation of numbers and markers and percentages. We marveled at how transparent and willing Larry was to share this most intimate information about his epic fight. Always the teacher, Larry had turned himself into a research project, wondering aloud about the efficacies of therapies, the side effects of experimental drugs, the promise of the newest generation of interventions. He planned a new book: “Surviving the Big C,” sharing his insights and discoveries. During a moving talk last year at USC, Larry said: “I’m a resilient kind of positive person. I’m not angry at the cancer. It’s just ‘one of those things,’ and I have to move on. I think that optimism has been very helpful.” Every email ended with the same basic message to us: “Optimism is the best weapon in the battle against cancer. Enjoy every moment you are given. Stand upright and be strong.”

Larry is survived by wife Debbie Barak Neinstein, three children Yael (Yossi), Aaron (Karen) and David, and five grandkids, as well as his brother Jack Neinstein. Each time he wrote those emails, he also thanked his beloved Debbie, his devoted kids, his adoring grandkids, and all of us who were blessed to know this sweet, lovely human being. In Talmud Shabbat 31a, Rava suggests questions we will be asked in heaven about how we lived our lives on earth. One of them is this: “tzipita li’shuah: did you hope for redemption?” The key word is “hope.” Did you live your life with hope in your heart? Larry Neinstein taught us that life is best lived in hope, not fear.

In our hearts, Larry, you will always be forever young.

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “The Best Boy in the United States of America” (Jewish Lights).