If, as Jewish teachings suggest, attaining a good name is one of life’s major achievements, then Shuly Kustanowitz lived well – earning respect and affection as a wife, mother, friend, writer, and community leader.
Those of us at the Standard remember Shuly, a former managing editor, as a talented, warm, and funny woman who rose to every occasion, always with a smile and with gentle competence.
Those of us lucky enough to have been her friend recall her generosity, compassion, and strength, particularly in recent years as she battled one medical challenge after another.
Members of the Fair Lawn community may remember the musical productions she launched with her husband and constant partner Al, including musicals such as “Spin the Drediel Solly Crown” and “Shushan Street,” presented at Cong. Shomrei Torah, among other venues.
“She and Al were partners in everything,” said longtime friend Daniel Mosenkis, who worked with the couple on these programs.
Mosenkis, who first met Shuly when they were campers at Ramah in the Poconos, said, “What I liked about Shuly was that whatever she said was something I never would have thought of. She always had a new angle, original thinking.”
Fair Lawn resident and longtime friend Joyce Heller, now a teacher at Ma’ayanot, speaks warmly of Shuly’s devotion to her children, laughing as she recalls how Shuly had to be convinced to leave her son Jack at Heller’s house for a playdate.
“She was so strong,” said Heller. Even in her last years, when she was beset by illness, “she never complained. She always greeted you with a smile.” And even when wheelchair-bound, she wanted to stay busy, whether writing or, an ardent Zionist, teaching Hebrew to friends like Heller.
Extremely proud of her grandparents’ role in the founding of Petach Tikvah, Shuly wrote passionately about Israel, penning travel articles and a biography of Henrietta Szold. And when she thought there were no haggadot suitable for her own kids, she wrote one of those as well.
Daughter Esther Kustanowitz, a prominent blogger now working with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, said that in composing a eulogy, “I realized that I should focus on one aspect of her legacy â€¦ a deep commitment to storytelling that followed us through our childhood and even into our adulthood professions.”
“My first exposure to writing as a career was her first book, ‘A First Haggadah,’ which my mother wrote because I was about 3 years old and there was no haggadah she could find that was written for children,” said her daughter. “Throughout my childhood, I watched her blossom as a newspaper writer, an editor, and again an author. I first learned about journalism at The Jewish Standard office, and Ema and I co-authored a book review together. Her articles and bylines piled up, on subjects varying from Jewish holidays to Israel advocacy, and throughout, I watched and listened as she developed her distinct and passionate voice as a writer.”
“I came to understand that my mother saw writing as an extension of what she always viewed as her most meaningful role – as an educator, helping us understand the world at large as well as our place in the Jewish tradition. But by sharing those lessons with us at home and with others in writing, she expanded her commitment, challenging others to think about their roles, whether or not they were Jewish, whether or not they had an affinity for Israel or Jewish tradition.”
In his eulogy, son Jack said that – despite suffering from an illness that threatened her life – Shuly did not tell this to her children but rather encouraged him in 1999 to make aliyah, a lifelong dream.
“My mother encouraged me to go,” he wrote. “She, like her father, always had her heart in the East, even as she herself was far off in the West.”
But the doctors were wrong, he said, “and not for the first time. She and my father visited me in Israel, first just to see me and eventually for my wedding. My mother managed to get halfway across the world with her wheelchair for what was to be her last trip to the land she loved so much.”
According to son Simmy, “‘thoughtful’ is the single best word I can use to describe her. She always chose her words carefully, and I relished every piece of advice she ever gave, big or small. My wife Ilana always says that my mother should’ve written her own version of Life’s Little Instruction Book, filled with all the nuggets of thoughtful advice she had to share.”
“She also taught me the value of appreciating what you have, even when life is less than perfect,” he said. “Despite the fact that she had her share of what most would consider some pretty bad luck, she always said that she felt incredibly lucky for the good things in her life, like her wonderful family.”
Celebrating Shuly’s achievements, husband Al recalled the coming out party for her book “Murder at the Minyan.” At the event, she said, “I tried to share with others my parents’ experiences and mine as a child. My father was in the pulpit, and that made our lives different from other people’s. I grew up as the daughter of the town’s rabbi, and I suspected then – and still do now – that most Jews did not have a clear idea of what a rabbi did or thought about every day. I knew the lifestyle pretty well and wanted to describe it, at least to my parents’ grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.”
She went on to say that she hoped the book “would be used as a source for discussion and insight into the issues we face today, including the problem of taking trivial things so seriously that we lose perspective on what’s really important.”
Shuly knew what was important. May her memory be for a blessing.