My Memories of Toby Stein

Editor’s Note: Carney delivered a version of these remarks at Toby’s funeral on Sunday, February 4. 

You always knew exactly where you stood with our inimitable friend and congregant Toby Stein. My most vivid and lasting memories come from her role as an invaluable if sometimes disquieting truth-teller.

Toby seemed to have spotted me as a convert-in-waiting the day our family arrived at Shomrei Emunah, long before I myself acknowledged that I was on the path to becoming a Jew. Sometimes she was surprisingly gentle and encouraging in reminding me of my incipient Jewish self; other times she was just plain relentless. She constantly pushed me towards greater participation in the Shomrei community and to making public expression of my spiritual beliefs. She was among the most enthusiastic celebrants when I finally immersed myself in the mikvah and then went on to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah at Shomrei.

It didn’t take me long to learn that Toby knew a thing or two about religious conversion. She had been raised a Jew, then became a passionate Roman Catholic and even married an ex-priest, and then returned to the tribe later in life. She reassured me that becoming a Jew did not require me to repudiate my previous religious life and that I shouldn’t feel that I had abandoned my previous beliefs – except maybe a few pesky details like the divinity of Christ. Toby herself still enjoyed the ritual, liturgy and music of the Catholic Mass.

I grew even closer to Toby when I began to apply myself to my writing, mainly memoir and occasionally a poem. I had heard about Toby’s long career as a writer and editor, first as an advertising copywriter for the J Walter Thompson agency, one of the first women to work on major accounts like Ford Motor Company, then as a novelist and magazine writer. After reading one of her novels, I very tentatively offered her one of my writings, asking her what she thought of it. My tentative approach turned out to be a big mistake. Toby’s response was: “If you’re just asking for validation that you’re a real writer, you’re wasting my time – and yours. If you want to get together and work on rewriting, I’m ready to do that. You could use some serious editing – I’d be happy to provide it at my usual rate.”

After my first wave of embarrassment passed, I realized she was right. I needed to keep writing and revising and not wait to be told whether or not it was any good. I decided to get by without the paid editing. My more serious approach seemed to resonate with Toby. After working with her on some of my longer pieces, she decided to put together a small writer’s workshop – just four of us. We met regularly to critique and revise our work. Toby’s writings were mostly memoir pieces, some of which became a part of the “spiritual memoir” she was still revising near her end. I learned a great deal about her colorful life and work in the process, including some vivid accounts of her marriage to a brilliant ex-priest and her relationship to her brother, also a writer and publisher of note.

Toby could be just as forthright and direct about the people and qualities she admired as she was about those that needed her critique. Soon after we joined Shomrei Emunah, Toby attended a Succah party at our family home in Glen Ridge. She was struck by the elegance of my younger sister, Lee Adella, and of her stylish dog, Duke the whippet. When she later met my younger brother Gaines, she exclaimed that we were a glamorous family group, a kind of Ur-WASP tableau, you might say. She expressed similar admiration when she met my stylish hundred-year-old Mother. There was an innocent quality to Toby’s praise that was very hard to resist!

As you can see, I am still coming to terms with Toby Stein’s influence on my life as a Jew and as a writer. May it always be so. Her memory is certainly a blessing.

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