Eulogy for Toby Stein

Editor’s Note: Gerry delivered this eulogy at Toby’s funeral on Sunday, February 4. The photograph of Toby was taken by Nick Levitin. 

Toby asked me several years ago to speak at her funeral, and since then she told me a number of stories about her life. Unfortunately, I never wrote them down, but I’d like to share a brief overview of her life, as I recall it. If I get something wrong, or I’m missing something, feel free to shout out a correction.

Toby grew up on West End Ave in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Her parents were both immigrants from the Soviet Union. Her mother, Zelda, was able to go to Vienna to study chemistry after all her brothers declined their father’s offer to send one of them to college. Zelda eventually moved to the United States sometime in the first 2 decades of the 20th century. Toby adored her mother, and looked a great deal like her. Toby’s father also came to this country, I believe from Minsk, and became a jewelry designer. I think Toby’s parents met in Chicago, but in any event they ended up living in New York City. They had a son and, 10 years later, Toby was born. When she was around 6, her brother invited a high school friend, a young black man who was gay and could not continue to live with his own family, to move in with the Steins. And that is how James Baldwin became, for a while, a big brother to Toby. Toby’s dad died when Toby was fairly young, and Zelda had to work hard to support the family and cover tuition when Toby began studying at Barnard. Unfortunately, Zelda passed away shortly after that. Toby was terrified that she would not be able to continue her education, but Barnard made arrangements and Toby continued her studies. Toby was eternally grateful to the college and a loyal alumnae.

Toby went on to work in the world of advertising, at first at Fuller, Smith & Ross, and then, for 5 years starting in 1965, at J. Walter Thompson. At Fuller, she was the only writer on the Grumman account – she worked on the lunar module and Gulfstream projects. At Thompson, she rose to be Copy Group Head and worked on the Ford account. This was particularly surprising, not only because she was one of few women on the Ford account, but also because she never learned to drive. One summer, when her boss was ill, she stepped in to lead all print advertising for Ford at a critical time – at the announcement of new car models. Toby was also proud that she never had to take on typical women’s products, like detergent and makeup. She then ran writing seminars for 10 years. She was also the author of several books, and you can find at least one of them at Montclair’s Public Library.

She told me a great story about a fellow editor who wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t give up his editing job because he had to support his wife and 4 children. Toby gave him $50,000 of her own money, permitting him to become a famous writer with his first novel, but I can’t remember his name. Perhaps one of you will know.

Toby was married for a while to a Catholic man and converted, but at some point after the marriage ended, she returned to Judaism. I believe she moved to Montclair in the 1980’s.

So let’s put it on the table – dealing with Toby could be somewhat of a challenge. She was a woman of strong opinions, and she could be quick to let you know when she didn’t agree with you. Yet notwithstanding that, over the last several years as she needed more assistance and had no family nearby, a group of Shomrei members stepped up. Many of you are here today. You helped her move, cleaned up her apartment, shopped for her, drove her to doctor’s appointments, synagogue services and other places, visited her in the last year or so as she was in and out of the hospital several times, and finally visited her in her final home at Brighton Gardens. Some of you got involved through the Mensch Squad. Some of you got involved some other way. I was tempted to thank all of you by name, but then realized the group is probably much larger than I know, and don’t want to leave anyone out.

So how is it that someone like Toby was able to enlist all of us, some of whom had to battle their way past Toby’s resistance to help, in order to become her helper? I think we saw some truths about Toby that were sometimes not so obvious.

Toby was a very moral person. She had a strong desire to do what was right. I suspect that one of the reasons that her religions were so meaningful to her was because of the moral framework they provided. She had a strong sense of honor and of right and wrong. There was a time a number of years ago when I thought Toby had done something with which I disagreed. The disagreement didn’t come between us as much as my not believing her when she told me that she hadn’t done it. She told me her parents had impressed on her the importance of always being truthful and it pained her that I thought she might be lying. This came up periodically over the years until I decided that her consistent denials were in earnest, and I told her that I believed her. I think this brought her a great deal of comfort.

Toby was also very smart. She certainly liked to show it off in her comments and questions during services here, sometimes to the consternation of the rabbi of the moment. But her insights were always interesting, and I respected the clear thinking she brought to any comment. Toby grew up in, and worked in, a world dominated by men – she was truly part of the Mad Men generation. I suspect it must have been very frustrating for her to have to live in a world where she probably often had to prove herself, knowing that she was usually one of the smartest people in the room. But she learned to overcome that, and I think the determination we saw here at shul was likely a reflection of the grit she had to draw on every day at work. With that understanding, I really respect her insisting that she be heard.

Toby’s writing and editing talents reflected a keen wit that she also expressed in conversation, although it was sometimes accompanied by a sting. If you could overlook the barbs, you could really marvel at the brilliance. And when you got to that good side of Toby, the one that came with a smile and twinkle in her eye, it was a little like when your very demanding, disciplined third grade teacher who kept the class in fear, told you that you had received an A on a test. Toby’s praise was not easily won, but perhaps all the sweeter when obtained.

Toby was devoted to Shomrei, as was probably evident to all of us here. It is not for nothing that her funeral is being held here at the synagogue – she petitioned the Board for permission to do so when no one else has that right. In her earlier years here at Shomrei, Toby ran large fundraising auctions, the last one was while I was president. I remember how exacting she was about planning for it and, especially, rounding up good auction items. She was determined to make it a huge financial success. And she pulled it off – the auction raised a lot of money. She also wrote prayers for our services, such as an alternate Prayer for Our Country which we often recited on Shabbat mornings.

Toby was also involved in the greater community. She volunteered with Montclair’s United Way and was an activist in getting the Town’s Senior Center built. She also wrote ads for Metrowest Federation.

Another wonderful, but not always seen, side of Toby was the way she loved the children of Shomrei. Charlie Breslin and Lynn Rubin were among her many helpers, and perhaps one of their greatest gifts to Toby was providing an opportunity for Toby to get to know their children. Toby adored them, among others here. Another was Gabe – as Toby slipped into dementia and getting to shul was more difficult for her, she nonetheless was very excited about his upcoming bar mitzvah and so wanted to attend.

So this somewhat cantankerous lady turned out to be very smart, witty, determined and ready to help, and she had a soft spot for kids – not a bad resume. She was part of the fabric of this community over the 30-plus years I’ve been here and I will miss having Toby as part of our Shomrei family.

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